Social Media in College

Avoiding the pull of social media isn't easy, especially when you're in college

Posted Jan 22, 2019

I recently asked one of my students, Peter, what he recalls about joining social media. He first got a Facebook account nearly 10 years ago when he was 13. He told me it was a huge deal to have access to social media and be able to interact with friends outside of school. Most of them had flip phones or no phone at all, making Facebook that much more exciting.

Even back then, he told me, his parents having trepidations about social media. They thought about strangers trying to message him and wanted to prevent him from posting anything he would later regret. He took their advice to heart and in high school, his parents began to trust him more and left him to his own devices to handle his social media experience.

Now, social media is much more ubiquitous - it is the reason so many millennials waste hours of their day scrolling blankly on their phones and obsessing over their public image. As it has become more prevalent in popular culture, the advice he received from his parents has become outdated and archaic. Social media is way more than a place with high levels “stranger danger”, it is actually a danger to my generation’s collective well-being and mental health.

I’ve been investigating this in my own research over the year and have found that social media usage is correlated with decreased feelings of self-worth and subjective well-being (or happiness). In an age of Instagram and Snapchat, we have become increasingly obsessed with portraying the best moments of our lives and comparing ourselves incessantly to our peers’ “best selves”.

For Peter, my student, he never imagined that was possible when he first joined Facebook and later, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

It just so happens Peter’s mother is a licensed psychologist. Recently, Peter and his mom discussed how he could have lessened his addiction to social media and preserving his social image. Here’s what they had to say:

Peter: Mom, how did you try to curb my involvement on social media as a child?

Dr. Dissinger: For you, it has been a slow progression. I have always been aware that any screen time (video gaming, computer time, talking/texting on phones) was not a healthy way to build your cognitive and social/emotional skills. As a result, you were one of the last kids to get a phone in middle school. I held off as long as I could so that you could develop other activities that gave you pleasure. This parenting approach has provided you a better balance as an adolescent/young adult so that you get pleasure from other sources, not just socialization through social media. How do you think this parenting techinque affected you?

Photo courtesy of Peter Dissinger
Dr. Lisa Dissinger and Peter Dissinger
Source: Photo courtesy of Peter Dissinger

Peter: Well, I didn’t get an iPhone until my senior year of high school so I was a lot less into texting and social media than my friends. In general, I was late to many social media trends and never became so engrossed in them that it negatively affected my well-being. I also avoided seeing parties or social events that I had not been invited to, which helped diminish feelings of social isolation that I felt in high school from time to time.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to college, social media was everywhere and I began to spend a lot more time on my phone texting friends, sending snapchats and checking Facebook. I know you’ve seen this increasing addiction up close and personal, what has your experience been of it?

Dr. Dissinger: Honestly, it saddens me that the phone and computer are so addictive (hear that ring or buzz, and it is hard not to want to respond instantly). You are not immune to this addiction, nor am I. This summer, when we were traveling, I noticed how hard it was for you and Dad to be fully present, especially when we were transitioning or traveling between places. The first thing you did was pull out your phones to check what was going on at home.

I think you are now aware of your addiction and are trying to find a balance between screen time and life outside of screens. Awareness is the first step. The second step is making sure you find time every day to shut down the technology and “be with yourself”, whether it is to exercise, to read, or to interact with a friend face to face. What have you done to change your social media habits now that you are aware of the issue?

Peter: I started by deleting Facebook on my phone - that was an easy time suck that I did not miss. I’ve since begun tracking my phone usage and trying to limit myself to two hours of phone use a day (that sounds like a lot, but compared with my previous usage it is reasonable). In addition, I will physically hide or leave my phone in places where I cannot use it during social interactions. And it certainly helps when you give me the eye that tells me, “Peter, put your darn phone away!”

Photo courtesy of Peter Dissinger
Dr. Dissinger and Peter enjoy one of the benefits of social media
Source: Photo courtesy of Peter Dissinger