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Benefits and Consequences of College Students Online | The Dark Side

With nearly every college student using social media in some form or another, how they are being influenced and impacted is being explored through formal and informal research.  With emerging technologies, concerns and fears of ‘what is this doing to kids’ is echoed through the halls of education.
Below I offer a healthy dose of what published research can provide to both educators, parents, and students themselves when answering the question: What is the impact of social media to young adults?
Considering the extent of information on this topic, this will be turned into a two-part post, first highlighting the found consequences in this post and then the benefits (found here).  Most of my writings on this blog are on social media in higher education.  I knew it was important to tell both sides of the story when it comes to these online communication tools.  They are not perfect and when used poorly can produce unfortunately results.  That being said, there are a plethora of positive and exciting (proven) benefits of social media for young adults too.
In case these two posts are too long for you, here is the big reveal: all in moderation.
Too much of anything (from running to ice cream to yoga or shopping) will have more negative side effects than good.  Studies on social media use of young people particularly show that it is the specific ways students are using social media that may constitute that online activity to have either a positive or negative outcome.  In other words, it depends.
To offer both ends of the spectrum, a recent study by Moreno, Kota, Schoohs and Whitehill (2013) broke down how Facebook both positively and negatively influences young users by the development of a concept map.  As a result, four domains were found that influenced students which included:

  1. Connection: Under the connection domain Moreno, et al. (2013) declared that Facebook provided peer communication and connection.  This included networks that were long distance, real-time, or even direct or non-direct human contact.“This can positively impact college students who are seeking peers with similar unusual hobbies such as bagpipes, or negatively influence college students who are seeking peers to engage in risk taking such as drug use” (2013, p. 509).  The Connection domain would appear to be a positive impact of social media, however the next domain of called Comparison has evidence otherwise.
  2. Comparison: This behavior was when a user compares themselves to someone else online through photos, comments, etc.  The authors called this ‘creep culture’ where Facebook has cultivating users to passively explore each others’ lives.  Just as students observe and make comparisons to other pages, so do others of their own page.
  3. Identification: The third domain of Identification allows a Facebook user to identify with either profile and real-time can revise their content.  Moreno, Kota, Schoohs and Whitehill (2013) believe this ability, “to develop one’s identity in real-time provides a unique multimedia view of self” (p. 509).
  4. Immersive Experience of Facebook The final domain was called Immersive Experience of Facebook, finding college students are fully aware that there are both positive and negatives aspects that come with social media platforms.  Even knowing this, college students seek out social media technology.

Anakin – Dark Side
The Dark Side of Social Media:

  • Loneliness
  • Increased stress
  • Study disruptions
  • Grade attainment
  • Paying attention in class
  • Negative peer feedback
  • Cyberbullying
  • Internet addiction

Type of Posts Matter: Loneliness & Involvement 
Many times the difference between a positive or negative impact of social media occurs was the difference between the type of post.
For example, Yang and Brown (2013) saw a connection between when a student posts a lot of negative statements on Facebook was a sign of loneliness and poor social adjustment.   Negative verse positive and productive posts separate what could be a cause for concern.  This was also true for what could be a positive outcome of social media.  For example, Junco (2011) positively connected Facebook activity to co-curricular activities.  However, just checking a students’ Facebook account would not be a positive indicator of involvement.
In the Classroom
When studying technology use among college students, Gemmill and Peterson (2006) saw one-quarter of participants being disrupted by technology when studying or while attending class.  Jacobsen and Forste (2011) explored the academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students.  The authors found overall technology usage was negatively connected to grades.  To explain this, two-thirds of participants were using technology during class, while studying, and when doing homework (2011).  This study documented that multitasking was not working.
Other studies have been conducted on Facebook usage and grade attainment with mixed results (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010; Kolek & Saunders 2008; Pasek, More & Hargittai, 2009).   However, Kirscher and Karpinski (2010) was the only one that reported Facebook users had a lower GPA than non-users, as they completed fewer hours studying, also confirming Jacobsen and Forste results of mis-managing the idea of multitasking.  It is common to find universities educating students about time management, balance, and organization.  Considering afore-mentioned studies, additional education needs to be including on technologies influence over study patterns and creating healthy boundaries of usage.
Related to attempts to multitask while studying, stress levels seem to have an impact on how much technology may affect a student.  Gemmill and Peterson study discovered that if a student stress level was already high, technology use would only increase it (2006).  Pempek et al. (2009) explored this further to find when used in moderation, and if levels of stress were not already high, students’ Facebook use provided learning, ability to stay in touch, and had a positive impact on their life (2009).
Peer Behavior
In this same Pempek et al. study, a negative result of social media use was documented from peer behavior.  If a student was to receive something negative from their peers through social networking sites, the impact on the student’s self-esteem was affected (2009).  This relates to cyberbullying.  The impact of being cyberbullied is comparable to in-person bullying.  No matter the time, location, or age,

“Even a single incident of bullying encountered at school is associated with elevated daily levels of anxiety” (Juvonen & Gross, 2008, p. 497).

Esbensen and Carson (2009) showed those whom experienced bullying report higher rates of fear, constant risk for future victimization, and a school environment that was less safe.  Similarly, Adams and Lawrence (2011) study on the long-term effects of bullying into college, found the following challenges in college: being unsure of safety, feeling excluded, isolation, abuse from classmates, alienation from classmates, loneliness, and the belief that bullying is ‘a rite of passage.’  Teens have had access to digital technologies at a very young age, which have already impacted their education, development, and how they make meaning.
Because of constant access, all age groups have reported internet addiction.  For college students, heavy internet use was negative related to self-esteem and social support (Kim & Davis, 2002; Sanders, Field, Diego & Kaplan 2000). The opposite was also true, with high self-esteem, excessive Internet use will decrease (Kalpidou, Costin & Morris, 2011).
There may be other consequences, some found and then rebutted by other studies such as the example with GPA.  I will follow up this post with part two, highlighting what research has found as the positive effect of social media on college students.
The question I leave you with is this: who is teaching students on moderating and reflecting on their online activity, including behavior, motivations and real time spent online?  Where does the responsibility fall?  What is your role as parent, teacher, student, peer, friend, etc in digital role modeling and education?
Interested in the references I used in this post?  Click here for the most updated and growing list of related social media in education publications.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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