Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Student Transitions, Stress and Social Media

How can theories created twenty years ago help educators understand student development through a digital lens? I recently used Nancy Schlossberg’s (1995) Transition Theory as part of my dissertation to do just that. This theory looks at identity through transitions and the perceptions one has during them.shutterstock_231425347

I wondered during my research, would Schlossberg “like” social media?

I will explain in this post how social media can be fuel for support and strategies students need to transition through stress before, during and after college.  I will briefly present the theory and then apply it to working with college students and social media.

Schlossberg 101

Understanding transition is critical when working with college students; the transition in, through, and out of college. But it’s not just college students that experience these transitions. In a life span perspective, Schlossberg observed transitions as providing opportunity for growth.
These transitions were defined by Schlossberg, Waters, and Goodman (1995) as

“any event, or non-event that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions and roles” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 27).

Key to this is the perception one has of the transition: “A transition exists only if it is so defined by the individual experiencing it” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 111). Over time, one would experience phases in these transitions, including moving in, moving through, and moving out.
shutterstock_124543042There are three types of transition defined by Schlossberg, including anticipated, unanticipated, and nonevents. Examples of these include graduating from college (anticipated), divorce (unanticipated), and nonevents (an event is expected but does not occur, such as graduating from college). College students experiencing transition can be under stress and be dependent “on the ratio of individual assets and the liabilities at that time” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 112).
Schlossberg (1995) defined four factors that connect a student’s ability to cope, which she called the four S’s. These include situation, self, support, and strategies.

  1. A situation includes many factors, such as a change of role, length of time, past experiences, personal triggers, and control.
  2. Self is based upon demographic characteristics and psychological resources.
  3. Support is found from close contacts, such as family and friends, as well as the student’s campus community.
  4. Finally, strategies are decisions that modify and aid in managing stress.

For even more information on this theory, check out the slides below:

No known research has been conducted that uses Schlossberg’s theory of transition with the impact, use, or experiences of social media on college students or any population. There are a number of studies and connected theories that do look at one particular transition for young adults and the impact it has on their success and development, as well as what role social media has in their transition.

Social Media & Transitioning through College

Connecting the power of social media to this theory, Junco’s (2011) showed that through Facebook a student can maintain relationships, both ones at their universities and ones that are physically distant. Other sites can also be beneficial to college transition,

Social media—including social network sites (SNSs), personal blogs, and geographically bounded discussion forums—may ease students’ transition from high school to college by providing them with information and social support, as well as, a way to find and connect with other students. (Gray et al., 2013, p. 193)

The importance of this for young adults is crucial in their development going into adulthood.

“Communication with friends that occurs on Facebook may help young adults resolve key development issues that may be present during emerging adulthood” (Pempek et al., 2009, p. 236).

This explains why students appear invested in building and maintaining relationships online through behavior such as self-disclosure. The vulnerability it takes to open up is a key element of intimacy development, another major component of emerging adult development (Mangao et al., 2012). When used properly, these tools have been shown to provide a medium through which a young adult can successfully transition through important experiences around the time of college.

Documented Student Transitions on Social Media

My dissertation looked at 40 college student leaders and their use and experiences with social media. The social media activity of the student leaders over the course of the calendar year served like a yearbook or journal, documenting the highs and lows of the college experience. The theory of transition from Schlossberg, Waters, and Goodman (1995) views these moments through a positive lens, recognizing that they can provide growth.
While the theory was not written to recognize how social media would become present in these events and transitions, based upon current usage observed in the study, participants openly shared life events with both celebration and reflection posts that exposed struggles.
This theory is relevant to work with college students because of the significant number of transitions that they experience while in college, from leaving home for college to moving out of college into the working world.

Transitions can be observed online, where students may be seeking, developing or even lacking one of the four S’s defined by Schlossberg et al. (1995): situation, self, support, and strategies. These four factors have an impact on how and if a student can cope with stress.

Schlossberg 4’s Discovered Online

shutterstock_193135562This theory can be used not only to aid in digital literacy skills for college students and student leaders, but also to provide a theoretical lens for higher education administrators. College student are under stress. There were a few examples of the four Schlossberg S’s were found in my research:

  • Managing stress with the aid of social media resources came out through the four S’s, especially related to support.  These strategies were found in the comments section of posts, especially on Facebook.
  • Students found supportive relationships on digital applications. This was reported by students in focus groups, where they explained that Facebook was used for building and maintain relationships.
  • One positive strategy for students was displaying reflective behaviors and opening up to others online. This was presenting a self resource in the 4’s.
  • Analyzing 2,200 social media posts, I found on Facebook that most posts received a high amount of support through recognition such as “likes” and “comments.” In focus groups, participants explained how this would help them make decisions, cheer them up, etc.

Shifting Your Lens of Students, Stressful Transitions & Social Media

Social media is part of the student experience, far before they arrive to campus. Understanding how and why students are drawn to platforms is just as important as mastering the perfect programming calendar, roommate agreement or assessment cycle. There is more going on with their use of digital communication tools that just social. Using the positive perspective of transitions by Schlossberg, students seeking out and displaying the four S’s (situation, self, support and strategies) on social media should be celebrated!
However, if you fear their use and cringe every time a student is isolated on their phone – this probably means your university/department social media presence is doing the same thing. Could it be extreme cases of students acting out online be a sign they do not have the transition resources Schlossberg proposes?  SO….

How can your personal social media presence, as well as your department pages provide one or more of the four S’s to your campus community? This flips the idea that social media is for marketing your programs and services.

What if promotion was secondary on social media?

Schlossberg provided the building blocks for how to build an online community of care. Stress is going to happen to your students no matter how big of a welcome week concert you produce or pulling off the smoothest move-in day ever. Students need resources face-to-face and online for events anticipated and not. As discovered in my research, transitions will be documented online – so what is your role in curating a supportive virtual space?
Whether you are in the mix or not, they are going online to find it. This is a developmental task they are presenting. Piecing together the tools to transition.

Closing Thoughts

shutterstock_125617796I can’t say for sure that Schlossberg and her team would definitely “like” social media as a resource to cope in a stressful transition. However, regarding social media as a tool in transition adds a new perspective to the Schlossberg’s theory.
But just like the theory proposes, the four S’s must be held in a balance. There needs to be other factors to help move students through transition. Look to your campus resources face-to-face, as well as online to enhance the feelings of support for your students as they prepare for and/or experience transitions.


Evans, N. J., Forney, D.S., Guido, F.M., Patton, L.D., & Renn, K.A. (2010). Student Development in college: Theory research and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schlossberg, N. K., Waters, E. B., & Goodman, J. (1995). Counseling adults in transition (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.

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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Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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