Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, by all accounts looked to be a happy and healthy college student, ESPN wrote in May. A star athlete on the track team, she was talented and successful, but she began to experience anxiety and depression during her first semester away from home.
And some of her anxiety and worry was compounded by social media usage as she and a close friend would scroll through Instagram, looking at the photos of other students and say, “This is what college is supposed to be like; this is what we want our life to be like,” ESPN reported.
Holleran killed herself in January of 2014, and ESPN investigated the troubling contribution of social media consumption into her anxiety and depression, as well as the larger trends of compulsive social media use in people her age.
Anxiety is now the No. 1 mental health diagnosis on college campuses, and as stories similar to Holleran’s become more prevalent, therapists on college campuses are beginning to look towards leading contributors to student anxiety so they can help students cope. Compulsive consumption of social media is one factor experts are pointing to as factor in rising anxiety among students.
“Just clinically, and in interactions with students there definitely is a greater amount of worry about what’s happening on social media,” Rajita Sinha, PhD, director of the Yale Stress Center, told Business Insider.
Sinha noted that student anxiety stemming from social media often was the result of inappropriate content — such as bullying or harassment — as well as the propensity for students to compare themselves to classmates.
Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Jed Foundation, echoed these sentiments. “One of the things we have seen is there is an association of depression and time spent on social media,” Schwartz told the Huffington Post in February. Schwartz’s words closely mirror the findings in a study out of the University of Missouri. The study showed a connection between Facebook use and depression.
A survey out of Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania studied the effects of decreased use of Facebook and Twitter and found that students were more focused and less stressed, according to Reuters.
To be clear, widespread social media use is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there is still more research needed to be done to fully understand the implications, according to Sinha.
Still, she likens the way people use social media and other addictive behaviours. “The idea one can participate in social media on a binge kind of level or obsessively or constantly without the ability to disengage or being able to find alternate reinforcement, has some of those qualities,” she said.
To combat anxiety related to social media, students should distance themselves from their apps and seek out other activities. “Building positive alternate activities is really important,” she said.
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