Social Setback: A Study of Social Media’s Role in College Students’ Well-Being During COVID-19
Cinema and Television Arts, Elon University
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements in an undergraduate senior capstone course in communications
Social media has been a prominent tool for people worldwide for more than two decades, but its usage has also been linked to mental health decline.This study investigates the impact of social media on current college seniors through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uses and gratification theory. The goal of the research was to find the reasoning behind why students used social media during the pandemic and how their social media usage has changed since 2020, if at all. Multiple focus groups indicated that cognitive needs, social integration, and tension-free needs were the main reasons to use social media during isolation. Furthermore, it was found that social media habits have changed dramatically since 2020. The research reinforces the idea of social media being an outlet for students during quarantine, but also being a destructive tool if misused.
Keywords: social media, COVID-19, uses and gratification theory, focus groups, college seniors
Social media is arguably the most innovative form of communications in the twenty-first century. It has allowed people to connect with each other from across the globe. It also aided in the continuation of relatively normal communication throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior research has explored the impact of social media on the population as a whole, and more research has been published regarding the effects of social media in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, an interesting perspective that seems to have been neglected is that of college students, specifically college seniors, and how social media impacted them during the pandemic. College seniors in 2022 experienced their first semester of college normally, but each semester afterward has somehow been impacted by the pandemic. Social media was a way for these students to try and hold onto a glimmer of college life. This research asks those students directly how social media was both beneficial and harmful when experiencing isolation.
The uses and gratification theory has proven to be a helpful lens when researching the effects of social media. The five needs under the uses and gratification theory— cognitive needs, affective needs, personal integrative needs, social integrative needs, and tension-free needs (Uses and gratification theory, 2018)— were compared to the responses given in the two focus groups conducted for this study. The answers were then sorted and explained through this framework. Furthermore, the outcomes in social media habits post-pandemic were discussed, and topics for future research were suggested.
II. Literature Review
Social media has been a prominent tool for people worldwide for about two decades and has been used for a multitude of reasons. Previous research has delved deep into how social media impacted the mental health of the greater population during the first year of COVID-19. The uses and gratification theory provides a possible explanation for the different reasons why people might excessively use social media.
Uses and gratification is a social science theory that has been used to track and explore the meaning behind human behavior and media consumption since the 1970s when it was developed by Elihu Katz and Jay Blumer (Uses and gratifications, n.d.). This theory was a unique idea for the time, as it suggests that “instead of considering the audience as passively exposed to strong media messages, it considered an active audience that consciously selected and used media content to satisfy various needs” (Uses and gratifications, n.d., p. 1). Modern use of uses and gratification has transitioned from traditional media to social media, and the theory continues to give reliable explanations as to why people consume the media in the way that they do.
As research with uses and gratification has progressed, five categories of needs have emerged. Each give a reason as to why people consume media. These five needs are cognitive needs, affective needs, personal integrative needs, social integrative needs, and tension-free needs (Uses and gratification theory, 2018). When consumers use social media to fulfill their cognitive needs, it means they are using social media as a news source or a general source to gain knowledge. Affective needs means that consumers are using social media to fulfill their emotional needs. This could be through watching anything from a sad movie to a happy TikTok video. Personal integrative needs mean users are making social media their source of a self-esteem boost. Whether this is comparing themselves to people on social media or purchasing items that give them a sense of raised social status, these are examples of personal integrative needs. Social integrative needs, on the other hand, involves using social media as a main source of communication with family and friends to fulfill the want to socialize with others. Finally, fulfilling tension-free needs are when people use social media as an escape tactic to distance themselves from their own reality.
History of Social Media
Social media is “a group of Internet-based applications that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content,” (Lin et al., 2016, p. 324) and is an integral part of society today. It has grown in use and universal popularity within the last few years, and now about 90% of young adults (Lin et al., 2016) in the United States use at least one social media app.
Social media has been a necessary form of communication throughout the 21st century, but it has also been linked to mental health decline. Different studies have found an association between mood dysregulation and social media usage, as well as a linear correlation between depression and social media usage (Lin et al., 2016).
While there is a lot of research that would argue social media and depression are closely related, there are also longitudinal studies that have been done that would argue the opposite. “We find no evidence that time spent on social media is ‘destroying a generation,’ a question that has been tackled in recent years, specifically in reference to smartphones” (Coyne et al., 2020, p. 6). The debate as to whether or not social media was detrimental to the mental health of its many users only got worse when the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
Social Media and Mental Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic
There are myriad reasons as to why COVID-19, social media, and mental health were so closely linked. Misinformation regarding the virus spread on social media and impacted the lives of many, and research shows it was difficult to change minds about this misinformation once people heard about it (Vraga & Bode, 2021). Furthermore, another study explains that the “psychological effects of social media exposure are not only limited to its excessive use but also to the authenticity of the information provided. While the illness itself is one of the major causes of anxiety, depression, and fear of death, this psychological impact due to social media (mis)information overload can also have a lasting effect on the overall well-being of the population” (Sarwar et al., 2021, p. 91).
The stress of the pandemic was also linked to an increase in addictive social media use behavior. While social media use hasn’t yet been psychologically defined as a category of addiction, quarantine revealed how social media apps can be significantly addictive, especially when someone believes to have lost their locus of control (Brailovskaia & Margraf, 2021). Research has explored how an increase in social media use and the pandemic are related, and studies have explained the connection as an “adaptive function,” a “means of escape,” or even “to regain a subjective sense of control in the virtual realm in the midst of otherwise unpredictable life experiences” (Vally & Helmy, 2022).
A great deal of research has focused on whether or not social media is good for one’s mental well-being, but what many researchers have failed to explore is the impact of each kind of social media on its users, rather than simply using social media as a blanket statement.
This research will ask three questions:
RQ1: In what way did college students use social media during the pandemic?
RQ2: What was the role of each social media app during the pandemic?
RQ3: How has the use and the role of social media changed since the pandemic?
This study is important research about the role social media played for college students specifically during the pandemic is few and far between. College seniors’ normal college experience was cut short, and they had to depend on social media to feel connected to their new friends. Social media has become a staple in the lives of most 20-year-olds, and it is important to discuss the positive and negative aspects of social media use throughout the pandemic. Furthermore, many college students have changed former social media habits, which is an interesting perspective to obtain as well.
Qualitative research was used to conduct research about the effect social media had on current college seniors during the pandemic. The researcher conducted two focus groups consisting of 10 college seniors total in November of 2022. A focus group is defined as “a form of group interview that capitalizes on communication between research participants in order to generate data” (Kitzinger, 1995). These students ranged in major, and the group had seven females and three males. All students that participated attended Elon University, and the researcher used convenience and stratified sampling. One student was chosen from each of the most popular majors at the university. The goal of using a focus group was to derive themes from the conversations in order to gauge how different social media apps were used in relation to the five needs under the uses and gratification theory.
The only incentive used during the focus group was that the researcher brought snacks for all the students. Each participant was protected under the Institutional Review Board guidelines and signed a confidentiality waiver; therefore, their names will not be used in this project. However, all participants gave permission to be quoted in this research paper.
The conversation took place in a classroom on the university campus specifically used for focus groups. Each conversation took about an hour in length and used a semi-structured interview style to ensure all avenues of the topic were explored. The focus group was recorded, and the researcher transcribed the recording afterwards. To make everyone comfortable, the researcher started with ice breakers such as what the students’ majors were and what their favorite social media app was. The conversation then moved to a more directed activity, and the researcher asked the group what the first word was that came to mind when they said isolation, COVID, and social media.
After these activities were completed and participants were more comfortable, the researcher began asking questions about each students’ experience with quarantine, how it impacted their mental health, and how social media played a role in their quarantine experiences. Many of the questions had underlying themes related to the uses and gratifications theory, such as “during quarantine, how often did you use social media? How long would you estimate that you were on it per day?” “What role did social media play in your quarantine experience? What were the benefits of using social media for you?” “Do you still use social media in the same way you did during the heat of COVID? “How have your social media habits changed since isolation?”
The researcher also gave time after the focus group to debrief, if necessary, for all participants. Since the topic of COVID and quarantine can be a sensitive topic, the researcher wanted to ensure all the participants were comfortable after the focus group concluded. To ensure anonymity after the research concluded, all recordings and transcriptions were destroyed two months later.
Overall, daily social media use among participants ranged from five to eight hours per day at the beginning of quarantine. When gathering information for this project, the responses were sorted into the five categories of needs under the uses and gratification theory— cognitive, affective, personal integrative, social integrative, and tension-free. Furthermore, participants were asked how their social media usage habits have changed. The following findings have been organized into these six categories.
Cognitive needs under the uses and gratification theory can be described as the need for gaining knowledge in some regard. In terms of social media, this could be using a platform to obtain factual information about a topic or to receive news as it happens.
Participants used social media to fulfill their cognitive needs relatively frequently. Instagram and TikTok were the two main sources used to receive information about the everchanging COVID world, but they were also used as resources for information about other events such as Black Lives Matter. One participant said they saw a change in their TikTok later in the isolation period of COVID where “it became a positive news space where I was able to get critical information and I didn’t have to be checking the news constantly. TikTok played a large role in terms of informing me about what was happening in the world while also hearing about different peoples’ experiences.” They went on to explain that this was helpful in their opinion because they were able to receive news without it being “channeled and filtered by someone else.”
Instagram stories were also noted as a useful resource because of the infographics being made and posted regarding many different newsworthy topics at the time. “It was a way for us to streamline information or opinions to our followers in a very easy way,” one participant explained.
Social media was often used to fulfill the affective needs of users. This can also be called the emotional needs, or those that control the pleasure spots in the brain or mood in general. An example of an affective need is watching a funny video with the goal of laughing.
A topic that came up frequently in the focus groups was how social media facilitated a feeling of motivation for many users. TikTok trends, Instagram motivational posts, and even the “perfect life” aesthetic that is portrayed on Pinterest are all factors that led to this feeling. Since COVID was what felt like an elongated period of stagnancy, participants explained that having social media posts as a motivator were incredibly helpful. Some of the most prevalent motivators were cooking TikToks, workout videos, and motivational Instagram stories or TikTok videos. One participant pointed out the specific “TikTok culture” of getting motivated during quarantine— “TikTok was often a distraction but there were times when it motivated me to do things like running or cooking.” Another participant explained that the Instagram blogger, Kelly Berger, was incredibly helpful with her fitness journey during this time with her barre class livestreams.
This motivation was, however, a double-edged sword. Participants explained how it also instigated a feeling of laziness. This is due to the inability to leave the house because of quarantine, and many students felt bad about not being able to be as productive as the people they saw on social media because of quarantine. Furthermore, this obsession with being productive led to irregular sleep schedules, as many participants explained that they would stay up very late to make TikToks or participate in trends. One participant said “TikTok gave me a way to pass the time because I loved making and watching TikToks, but I would also stay up until five in the morning making them and sleep all day.”
Personal Integrative Needs
Personal integrative needs are the needs a user has related to self-esteem in terms of social status. An example would be purchasing a new item a consumer sees as a way of gaining a higher social “ranking” through something such as an Instagram ad. One participant explained that “social media ads were definitely tempting at this point in time, but I was less focused on that aspect of social media and more focused on information regarding daily news.” Gaining social reassurance during this time that related to something monetary was less important than the other needs expressed through the uses and gratification theory, and was not of great importance to the participants in the focus group.
Social Integrative Needs
On the other hand, social integrative needs were one of the two most important needs to be fulfilled for these students. This is the need to interact with others, which can most likely be linked to the new friendships students were fostering with the people they had just met their first semester of college.
The first way participants said social media fulfilled this need was through the feeling of community that social media apps fostered throughout quarantine. The “sides” of TikTok created communities inside the app where people were able to talk about a common interest. It was also a place where everyone could talk about their grievances in regard to quarantine, which made users feel less alone as they experienced the pandemic unfold. One participant explained that it “validated their quarantine experience,” and while social media had previously made users feel as though they were missing out, it made them realize they weren’t missing out on anything because everyone was experiencing the lack of excitement during quarantine.
Furthermore, social media was a way to easily interact with both family and friends who were not in the same “quarantine bubble.” Many participants mentioned Snapchat as being one of the most efficient and effective ways to communicate with friends. “Having these kinds of apps where you can talk with friends and family was nice during quarantine because it was an additional way to communicate besides just constantly texting. I could send a post to a friend that reminded me of them as a way of keeping in contact.” Furthermore, a popular form of communication was sending video logs or “vlogs” to entertain both the creator of the vlog and their friends. This was one of the best ways to interact with each other throughout quarantine in many of the participants’ opinions. “Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram were the best for communication because they were the most authentic kind of interaction that felt relatively genuine,” one participant explained. Another explained how Snapchat was a great tool because “seeing someone’s face made them feel more connected socially.” The need for social interaction was the most prevalent need that was fulfilled by social media use.
Tension-free needs was the second-most popular need that was fulfilled by social media use throughout quarantine. This could also be described as “escapism,” something many people were attempting to do at the beginning of the pandemic. A term many of the participants described their social media use as during the beginning of the pandemic was “mindless scrolling.” It was a way to pass the time, since they felt they had nothing better to do.
“Every morning during quarantine I would scroll on Instagram for an hour or so, go downstairs and make the whipped coffee that was trending on TikTok, and go on TikTok once I was done with breakfast. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I just wasted time on social media. It was the only way to get through the day,” explained one participant. Other students resonated with this statement, and they came to the conclusion that without social media, they wouldn’t have known what else to do with their time.
The “recommended” page on Instagram and the “for you page” on TikTok were discussed in terms of how they kept people on the app for longer because the algorithm catered to what they wanted to see or what would entertain them. They were less inclined to think about the state of the world when constantly being fed new comedic material or recommended various activities to occupy their time.
Escapism was helpful to get away from reality in some regard, but many explained that social media was also a constant reminder of the state of the world which, in turn, quickly snapped them back into reality. Furthermore, the excessive social media use led to many participants feeling “useless, lazy, and unproductive.”
Many participants talked about the negative effects of their social media use when they used it specifically to fill their tension-free needs. One participant explained how it made them feel even more anxious when leaving the app because of the elongated period of time they spent on any given social media platform.
The pros and cons of fulfilling the tension-free needs one experiences were discussed by the focus groups. It was discovered that this need led to the most common overuse of social media especially during quarantine because it was difficult for many people to figure out ways to fill up the extra time on their hands.
Changes in Social Media Habits
An overarching theme was the excessive use of social media. Now that the pandemic has become less of a medical emergency and quarantine is no longer necessary, the participants have had time to reflect on their quarantine experiences. Many participants explained how their social media habits have changed drastically since isolation.
Some participants deleted social media apps altogether. One participant deleted them due to the negative impact apps like TikTok and Instagram had on their mental health. Another participant has come up with a system of deleting the apps when they know they have a busy week of school ahead, in order to reduce the amount of time they would waste scrolling on social media when they should be studying. Doing this also allowed them to cut out their ability to stay up late on apps like TikTok and Instagram. Deleting the apps was a rare decision among the participants, however those that did so explained that it was effective.
All other participants explained that they had reduced their social media use drastically since quarantine. Many said they couldn’t delete them altogether because they needed the apps to communicate with others and would feel as though they were missing out if they deleted them, but quarantine made them aware of how much they were overusing social media apps. Self-awareness surrounding social media usage increased drastically, but participants realized how difficult it is to get out of the habit of obsessive social media use because of quarantine.
Overall, current college seniors used social media in order to fulfill four out of the five needs described in the uses and gratification theory. Cognitive, affective, social integrative, and tension-free needs were all widely used during the beginning of the pandemic. Furthermore, the use of social media for students has changed drastically due to increased self-awareness. While these themes help answer the research questions, there were other interesting themes that arose from the conversations in the focus groups.
One interesting topic that arose was the fluctuation of social media throughout quarantine. It was noted that each social media platform did not have a singular “job” throughout the pandemic under the five needs, and it often changed depending on the month. For example, participants explained how TikTok was a positive news space in the fall of 2020, where they were able to obtain unfiltered information about the pandemic and other events. However, it had not always been like that, because TikTok was an overwhelming platform where there seemed to be “too much information” just the summer prior. The best news platform fluctuated throughout quarantine between Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Furthermore, social media platforms and their effect on the mental health of each student depended on the month as well. This had to do with which apps people were using to fulfill their tension-free needs, and one participant explained that “as everyone’s mental health declined throughout quarantine, social media platforms became more toxic.”
To build upon the previous idea, using this escapism tactic to avoid the current state of the world was not always a useful or effective strategy. This is due to the overwhelming and ever-flowing stream of news users were consuming on a daily basis. While it worked occasionally, participants expressed the fact that half the time social media simply heightened their concern for the state of the world rather than distracting them from it.
Another topic discussed related to how social media use during the pandemic has affected the way people use social media now. It was suggested that the lack of activities and spike in social media use during quarantine has heavily influenced current “addictive” social media habits. More specifically, with the rise of TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic, users were able to stay on the app for multiple hours per day, which in turn became a regular habit. Since then, this habit has been difficult to regulate, and many have had to severely restrict the time they spend on the app or delete it altogether. This could be an interesting topic to look into further in future research.
While there were multiple perspectives given in the focus groups conducted, all participants attended the same university and had relatively similar backgrounds. Doing focus groups or one-on-one interviews with a wider variety of students could facilitate more holistic conversations with different perspectives. Furthermore, asking more in-depth questions regarding each of the five needs under the uses and gratification theory could give more information as to why each need was met and how that was done.
This study explored the reasoning behind why current college seniors used social media during the coronavirus pandemic. The five needs described by the uses and gratification theory were used in order to categorize the multitude of explanations given by the participants in the focus groups conducted. The research found that many students used social media in order to fulfil cognitive, affective, and social integrative needs. Other themes such as the fluctuation of social media throughout the pandemic and the idea that isolation formed the way people overuse social media now were discussed.
For future research, as mentioned above, delving into how the pandemic aided in the formation of addictive social media use would be an interesting topic to explore. It would also be beneficial to see how TikTok alone fulfilled each of these needs and whether or not students feel it was a good app to have at the beginning of quarantine. The other themes discussed previously, such as how news portrayed on social media changed over the course of the pandemic, could also be a fruitful topic of research.
Thank you to everyone who participated in both of the focus groups. Thank you to Dr. Daniel Haygood for his constant support and guidance throughout this process; this couldn’t have been done without him.
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