In today’s world, social media has become the greatest scapegoat for many of society’s problems. While this is not without some cause, we often forget the advantages of these platforms, particularly in the world of education. Whether it’s seeking advice, support, or a means of communication, social media has revolutionised the ways in which we interact with each other, and continues to provide a voice for those who need it the most.
Mental health is often an issue that arises when criticising social media, especially when discussing the effect of social media on young people. There are concerns that its overuse can result in negative perceptions of body image, lower levels of self-confidence and greater social anxiety. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that platforms such as Tumblr have users romanticising these issues, advertising them as somehow poetic or even fashionable.
But, aside from these outstanding negatives, does the use of social media have any advantages with regards to mental health? Well, according to some experts, it does. A survey by the mental health organisation Time to Change found that 47% of people aged 21 and under find it easiest to talk about issues of mental health online. Posting anonymously on websites such as Twitter or Instagram, those suffering are able to identify with similar cases online and can express themselves more freely. According to John Powell, a public health researcher at the University of Oxford, social media is “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone”. Therefore, is it possible that social media is helping reduce the stigma attached to mental health? It is, after all, a space powered by the people, and therefore a space for good as well as evil.
Social media is, after all, a space powered by the people, and therefore a space for good as well as evil
Another advantage of social media platforms, especially for university students, is the quick and easy access to news and current affairs. Social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat are often the first point of contact between young people and the world around them. With one quick glance at their news feed, students are provided with a snapshot of current affairs, entertainment news, and technological developments. Nearly 70% of Americans said they get news from social media, a recent survey by Wired found.
However, a majority of those interviewed (57%) expected this news to be “largely inaccurate”. So, while there are indeed positive aspects to this mode of consumption, it is important to be aware that much of this information has been tailored to meet the platforms’ marketing and advertising responsibilities as well as the algorithms that govern what shows up on our feed. Yet, from the user’s perspective, should it be our own responsibility to make ourselves aware of the world we live in, even in the knowledge that some of what we read may be false or misconstrued? In an age of fast and fake news, surely there must be a place for social media, as long as we remain aware of its limits: providing nothing more than a fractured and often filtered glimpse into the world outside our screens.
Social networking has become a very popular step in the quest for employment and is therefore a use of social media directly applicable to university students, particularly those in their final year. Over 92% of recruiters use social media to seek out highly qualified candidates, with 87% using online services such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
In addition to this, social medium platforms have been used increasingly by universities as a means of promotion to attract prospective students. This year’s International Student Survey (ISS) from Hobsons found that 83% of prospective students are using social channels to research universities – an increase of 19% between 2016 and 2017. Moreover, 42% of respondents said they would like to use social networks such as WhatsApp to communicate directly with their universities, while 35% would prefer to use Facebook. The University of Warwick has dedicated an entire section of its website to the role of social media channels on campus and provides useful information on how best to use these platforms for good. The university encourages students to engage with social media as both individuals and members of the Warwick community. Kindness, consideration and respect are three values that are considered to be integral to the healthy use of social media, and are essential to cleaning up its poor reputation.
In 2015, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was tweeted 9 million times and has now become a rallying cry for social justice and racial equality
The influence of social media has also inspired a new generation of social and political movements which have transformed the way young people think about the world. These platforms transcend cultural, lingual, religious and ethnic backgrounds, and offer movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter a mode of expression. Even if they do not directly involve monetary funding, many online social movements raise awareness for causes through tweets, posts and hashtags.
As an example, in 2015 the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was tweeted 9 million times and has now become a rallying cry for social justice and racial equality. In the political sphere, active online groups increase political participation by providing a framework for discussion, leading petitions, and collecting donations in order to further a political agenda. The influence of social media in the Brexit campaign also highlights this point. During the referendum, the top three most frequently used hashtags on the profiles of Brexiteers were #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Using the Internet, the Leave camp was able not only able to appeal to a wider audience but establish an online presence for the campaign. Yet, for better or for worse, it is clear that social media has changed the nature of political and social campaigning and will continue to play a key role in future movements around the world. As more and more people spend an increasing amount of their day to day lives online, social media is becoming an ever-powerful force to shape the public agenda and drive social change.
Social media platforms provide the unique opportunity to engage with an endless supply of students and academic professionals, regardless of age or location. As such, aside from the social appeal of these platforms, an increasing number of students are using them to engage in academic conversations online, exchanging ideas and creating meaningful dialogues between themselves and others. More than 59% of students who use social networking engage in talks about educational topics online. In addition to this, social media giants, such as Facebook, have been used by university students in order to complete collaborative assignments, and reach out to professionals in their chosen fields for expert advice and opinions. Even YouTube, a video-sharing platform which has been scrutinised for negatively impacting the productivity of students, holds a vast supply of educational videos that help develop various academic practices and skills.
So, how are universities remaining relevant in this world of online discussions? Well, campus initiatives such as TEDxWarwick have helped unite these platforms; and the university’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages regularly encourage students to ‘have their say’.
More than 59% of students who use social networking engage in talks about educational topics online
So, with more than one thousand posts, twenty-seven thousand tweets and one hundred thousand likes, it seems that Warwick is well-aware of the influence of social media and continues to maintain the balance between online and real-world discussions at the level of higher education. Regardless of your own stance, social media use only seems to be on the rise. Whether these platforms are used for good, however, depends on users remaining well-informed of the risks and we, as a society, holding social media platforms to account to ensure the online world is a safe space.