by Amanda Unruh, University of British Columbia – Vancouver
Every September in Canada, thousands of students start their post-secondary career. Students coming to university or college are looking for many things: interesting classes, a program that will lead them to a good job, to learn about themselves and their identity, for the name and reputation of the institution (Universities Canada, 2019). There is much research into what will allow students to thrive and learn while they are in a university environment and one of the biggest determinants of whether or not these students will do well academically and succeed is if they find a sense of belonging at their school and build relationships (Khalis et al., 2018).
While becoming a member of the on campus community, students build an identity and grow their interpersonal connections. Most, if not all, students will also have a parallel online identity and interpersonal connections through social media. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn will have more personal identifiers, whereas in spaces like Reddit, Youtube, or tumblr, a student may have more anonymity in what they choose to post, read or choose to engage and be in that space (Pittman & Reich, 2016).
At many of our institutions, ‘confessions’ pages on Facebook and Instagram, school-specific or faculty-specific subreddits, and many other social media spaces exist where students can anonymously share their struggles, observations of student and campus life, feedback on professors and student services, and, often, their personal mental health stories. What does the literature tell us about how and why students are using these spaces?
- Connecting in person is vital to university students, but they also gain benefits from connecting online.
Social connection for students has long been assumed as important for their success and is programmed by student affairs professionals (Wikipedia, n.d.), but has only more recently been studied as it impacts their academics and overall wellbeing while attending post-secondary (Khalis et al., 2018). Khalis, Mikami and Hudec (2018) found students who have good peer relationships, both acquaintance and friendships, have a better adjustment to university and thus transition better into the academic environment. Once in the university environment, students have diverse, larger group of peers with whom they can meet and form connections (Khalis et al., 2018). Being away from their families or those they grew up with, students entering university come to rely on their peers even more than they would have in their previous educational experiences (Khalis et al., 2018).
In a parallel online world, students are also expected to engage, and there are many societal assumptions about the negative effects of online connecting when compared to in person connecting (Yu, Foroudi, & Gupta, 2019). These assumptions by adults are usually negative as they pertain to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Our assumptions, however, are incorrect according to the research, and online connections are also beneficial to students in creating a sense of belonging and connection (Yu et al., 2019). Yu, Foroudi and Gupta (2019) found that international students who spent “time on social media for knowledge sharing, social interaction and entertainment […] tend[ed] to be better acculturated […] towards the host culture” (p. 499). Their research also found that when using social media as a form of social support, they were less lonely and felt more connected (Yu et al., 2019).
- How someone uses social media can be reflective of their mental health state, but is not caused by it (Berryman, Ferguson, & Negy, 2017)
As mentioned above, there are many assumptions about the impact of social media on youth mental health, though research does not indicate that the impact is necessarily negative (Berryman et al., 2017). The use of social media when used to connect with others is often positive towards one’s mental health (Yu et al.,2019). It is when an individual compares oneself to others via social media, this can lead to envy (Appel, Gerlach, & Crusius, 2016), rumination, feelings of isolation, that they may turn to social media more often, and thus use it more, which in turn may lead to more use and negative feelings, creating a negative loop (Berryman et al., 2017). These negative social comparisons are mostly studied through the platform of Facebook, but also exist on Twitter and LinkedIn (Chae, 2018).
Social media has not been found to be predictive of or cause negative mental health, though the platforms can be used for public postings, seen as a ‘cry for help’ (Berryman et al., 2017). A behaviour entitled “vaguebooking”, studied in youth, is one of these signs of mental health struggle (Berryman et al., 2017). Vaguebooking occurs when one is suffering from loneliness or suicidal thoughts and they may post concerning statements on social media, which can be seen as a warning sign to others of their mental state (Berryman et al., 2017).
- There is social value in anonymous online spaces, especially when it comes to sharing mental health struggles
Anonymity within online environments is often assumed to breed incivility, hate speech and negative discourse (Antoci, 2019; Bayne et al., 2019). While this seems a commonsense assumption, research does not support it. Being anonymous has little impact on one’s ability to be civil or positive within an online space (Antoci, 2019). What is more important is how one is primed to go into that space, whether they expect it to be a negative space, or positive one, whether they expect to be defensive or on the offense (Antoci, 2019). Research indicates there is value in the anonymity of online environments which enables an “egalitarian mode within which it is possible to experience ‘an unmaking of status inequality” (Bachmann, Knect & Wittel, 2017; as cited in Bayne et al, 2019, p. 93). Anonymous posting online is “freedom from surveillance” (Bayne et al, 2019, p. 103) and big data collecting one’s user information (Bayne et al, 2019).
There are additional benefits to online spaces which are anonymous yet monitored and moderated. These spaces are important spaces for community to connect and for people to share. Cited in Bayne et al (2019) on online spaces: “there was a shared general feeling that most people read and respond to posts not with judgment but with empathy and understanding.” (p. 99). In the case of mental health forums anonymity is key, especially for youth, to feel comfortable sharing very personal and difficult struggles (Prescott et al., 2017). The internet becomes a safe place for people to share their feelings when they may not feel comfortable to do so with those in their lives who may not react well or who do not have the shared experiences to react empathetically (Prescott, 2017). Anonymity in mental health forums, according to Prescott, Hanley and Ujhelyi (2017), allows for reduction in stigma of mental health, peer support and connections to professional support when people might not seek help otherwise.
The student community clearly values these online spaces – to learn about one another, laugh, live and support one another. In my experience reviewing these types of spaces, the posters value the opportunity to anonymously reach out for support and help, and the community often responds with support and encouragement. There is a lot of opportunity for research to be done on these organic student online spaces: how they function, why they are successful, and what benefits they bring to a huge community that is made up of many smaller communities. Ultimately, these spaces do what any community space does, on or offline: it makes people feel less alone.
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