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The Sunny Side of Students on Social Media

Sunny Ridge
Last week I wrote about the facts of technology and social media’s dark side for young users, including Internet addiction, cyberbullying, self-esteem, GPA and more. Check out that post here.  So, today I will highlight the bright sunny side of using social media platforms, specifically for college students.
There are a number of concerns about teens and young adults use of technology, in particular on social media sites and applications.  For example, a recurring question is whether it is replacing face-to-face interaction.
Three studies argue against this.  Researchers Huang, Hood and Yoo (2013) documented that social media activity facilitates offline interaction, not replacing it.  In a longitudinal study in Norway, Brandtzaeg (2012) also confirmed this.  Even further, college students prefer face-to face over Internet aided communication, as noted recently by Sponcil and Gitimu (2013).
In this post I will give counter arguments based upon publicized research, such as above.  Also, counter questions that need to be asked, such as what motivates teens and young adults to seek social media.  To answer this question, Yang and Brown (2013) studied late adolescents and their social adjustment to college.  The authors summarized their findings, as it relates to previous studies with six motivations for social media use, including to:

  1. Nurture friendships
  2. Maintaining existing relationships
  3. Enhance reputation
  4. Avoid loneliness
  5. Keep tabs on others
  6. Entertainment

All of these motivations will play out how college students are affected both positively and negatively.
Beyond this study, various other variables have been explored in the research such as social media interaction with grades, transition to college and sense of self.  Research has found positive results from college student online activity such as:

  • Expressing true self, impression & preservation
  • Building relationships
  • Self-esteem
  • Gives lonely, shy or introverts an extra resource for connection
  • Transition to college
  • Academic motivation
  • Student engagement

Self-Expression & Impression Management
Social media offers a vehicle for self-expression, where, for example, Pempek et al. claims “Facebook provides a unique opportunity for students to display their identities” (2009, p. 236).  Blogs have also been found to have a positive influence that allowed students to expand their network and express true self (DeAndréa et al., 2012).
Impression management was studied in various ways, such as fronts student use on Facebook and motives for social media usage.  Students appear to be very aware of the way they are coming across online, as Birnbaum (2013) found, “Students were aware that profiles represented an opportunity to present themselves positively and were aware that other students did the same” (p.166).  This was reciprocal, as students also formed impressions of other students Facebook profiles, many times within seconds.  It is not yet determined if this behavior is positive or negative, but awareness all the same leans in the sunny side direction.
Self Esteem
Self-preservation was cited from Reich (2010) where students can choose on Facebook what to post.  This user-generated and operated framework interacts with self-esteem, especially for those that may need an extra buffer in articulating thoughts and or feelings (2010).
Social media has also benefited students reporting lower levels of self-esteem or high levels of introversion (Steinfield et al., 2008; Ellison, Steinfield & Lamp, 2007).  Students used social media to find a vehicle for their voice, even if they were internally struggling with self-confidence.  Gonales and Hancock (2011) explained this further, finding social media can enhance self-esteem with social functions of self-awareness.
When exploring the relationship between Facebook intensity, friendship contingent self-esteem and personality of United States college students, Pettijohn, LaPiene, Pettijohn and Horting (2012) discovered a positive link.  For example, those students who relate their esteem to friendships are more active and connected on Facebook.
Benefits for shy and lonely students
Shy students also have benefited, who were observed more comfortable interacting on Facebook  (Baker & Oswald, 2010).  These relationships were found to be at a high quality on Facebook, as shy students got to know others.
Having sites such as Facebook or Twitter that offer a method for self-expression to increase confidence and self-worth for college students is crucial.  It is during this time that building and maintaining self-esteem while in college is a pivotal task for identity development and student success (Erikson, 1963).  The results from Steinfield, Ellison and Lampe (2008) Facebook study were similar to the positive results from Lour, Yan, Nickerson, and McMorris (2012).  Lour et al (2012) explored college freshman levels of loneliness and Facebook usage and saw Facebook had a positive impact on loneliness, with the ability to even reduce loneliness (2012).  This is accomplished by using platforms to interact with real offline relationships, such as friends and family.
Building and Maintaining Relationships
Many studies confirm that social networking sites cultivate social networks and resources, building students social capital (Brandtzaeg, 2012; Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007; Cheung, Chiu, & Lee, 2011; Jacobsen & Forste, 2011).  Maintaining existing relationships and fostering new connections is the number one reason and byproduct of social media use of college students.
Social capital has been studied numerous times to social media activity of teens and young adults.  Defining social capital, Brandtzaeg (2012) states it is the:

“Frequency of face-to-face interaction with close friends, number of offline acquaintances, level of bridging capital (or social networks between social heterogeneous groups), and absence of reported loneliness” (p.468).

Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe (2007) found that social networking sites connect individuals with an ability to share common experiences in small and large networks, facilitating social ties that were once considered ‘loose’ to become stronger current and future resources.  Further, Ellison et al (2007) observed Facebook having the ability to strengthen offline connections, in addition to students meeting new people.
A key ingredient in social capital is the networks available for resources.  Based upon this concept, the more networks and resources you have the better.  For college students, Ellison et al. (2007) reported students who had lower satisfaction and esteem could gain bridging social capital if Facebook was used more, in turn give them expanded networks and campus resources.
Student Success (Transition, Engagement and Involvement)
Once on campus, a primary aim for higher education staff and faculty are to engage students in and out of the classroom.  For student affairs professionals, many times this includes getting new students involved on campus through student organizations, events, leadership opportunities, residence halls activities, and more.
Three studies confirmed that through social media, student involvement can be positively influenced.

  1. In 2011, Rey Junco specifically studied Facebook use as it related to participation in student engagement.  This author discovered that student involvement was linked to Facebook time.  However, there was a difference between the type of activity, as just checking your Facebook would not increase involvement.  Once becoming involved on campus, social media resources such as Facebook friends will expand in person and online.
  2. One year after the Junco 2011 findings, another related study was released by Mangao, Taylor and Greenfield (2012), with findings that showed “College students with large Facebook networks are expanding those networks primarily for their involvement in extracurricular activities and acquaintances, secondarily through adding strangers, and thirdly adding close contacts” (p. 374).
  3. Gray, Vitak, Easton and Ellison (2013) also confirmed this, stating that students in the study were more involved on campus would have more Facebook friends, this in turn provide them strong connections to the campus.  Earlier research on Facebook by Ellison (2007) discovered this, where college students who were the high users of Facebook felt more connected to the university, in addition to confident in relationships both in college, high school and from their hometowns.

Other Benefits
Various other studies have proven positive results from social media use of college students. Valenzuela, Park, & Kee (2009) found that “intensity of Facebook use was related to civic participation, life satisfaction, and social trust (p. 63)”  Next, when studying bereavement and social media, Wandel (2008) reported college students received emotional support and connection through social when losing a family member or close friend.  Finally, when using Twitter in a first year seminar course, those students in the experiment group using Twitter resulted in a higher GPA’s than the control (Junco, Elavsky & Heiberger, 2012).
Take Aways 

  1. There are both benefits and consequences to social media use for college students.
  2. The distinguishing factors is the type of posts, frequency and most importantly motivation for social media activity.
  3. Social media can both increased and decrease self-esteem.
  4. Students may be more aware of negative behavior/impact than positive noted here.
  5. New research on social media is continually being released.  Stay open to new and reaffirming results as this emerging field of research continues to grow.

For all references, refer here for all sources I have used on this blog, as well as my doctoral studies.

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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