Iowa universities, facing mental health woes, look at social media ills

UI Counselling recently created its own Instagram and TikTok accounts to promote services, share details about workshops, provide mental health tools and humanise providers in helping them connect with students. — Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

IOWA CITY: A majority of this fall's university freshman were born in 2004 — the same year Facebook joined Myspace in the online landscape — and have never lived in a world without social media.

Just three years after Facebook's inception came the iPhone, cultivating a culture where today's students came of age looking for acceptance, affirmation, information and connection through likes, retweets and endless scrolling via handheld devices they take with them seemingly everywhere.

Although social media has proved beneficial in many ways, Iowa's public universities are facing a surge in mental health needs — like other campuses nationally following the Covid-19 pandemic — and they're looking at social media as contributing to the problem.

Corroborating national studies, University of Iowa counsellors — through discussions with students — have found social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok have exacerbated stress, depression and body image issues.

"Think about all of the notifications they're getting on a daily basis throughout the day," Lindsey Landgrebe, UI counselling psychology doctoral intern, on Wednesday told the Board of Regents meeting in Iowa City. "All that feedback can contribute to how they view themselves."

With mental health challenges on the rise — including an increase in suicide, which now ranks as the second leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 34 — Iowa's campuses are looking at a range of methods to address upticks in anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

They're looking at peer mentoring, campus connection opportunities, financial aid and data-backed university services to keep students engaged socially and academically. UI also recently launched the "Iowa Center for School Mental Health" aimed at providing supports for kids at the K-12 level, before college.

"The need for services to support students suffering with these mental health needs far exceeds the number of school-based providers," according to regent documents on the new UI centre. "Shortages in both highly needed service providers, as well as the limited community-based services, particularly in rural areas, underscore the need for a robust and comprehensive investment in mental health systems and supports."

Given the power social media has in student lives these days, Landgrebe said the UI is addressing that as part of its services.

"These adolescents and emerging adults still have this limited sense of self, they're still learning who they are and developing that sense of self," she said. "So there's an increased vulnerability to the social rewards through the likes, the shares, and retweets."

In support of the UI Counseling focus on social media, Landgrebe cited 2021 and 2022 Pew Research Center findings showing:

— One in five Twitter users under age 30 report visiting the site "too many times to count" on an average day;

— About 53% of Instagram users ages 18 to 29 report using that app multiple times a day;

— And 64% of adults under age 30 report having experienced online harassment.

"We still are learning the long-term health effects," UI staff psychologist Tianyi Xie told regents. "But as social media use among adolescents and emerging adults increases, we are seeing an increase in death by suicide."

The most recent UI student health assessment, conducted in spring 2021, showed 11% of undergrads attempted self-injury and 2 percent attempted suicide in the last year. Nearly 34% reported having been diagnosed at some point with anxiety; 27% said they'd received a depression diagnosis; and 11% said they'd been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

Because eliminating social media isn't possible and asking students to stop using is unrealistic, the UI is tapping the platforms themselves to promote healing and awareness.

UI Counselling recently created its own Instagram and TikTok accounts to promote services, share details about workshops, provide mental health tools and humanise providers in helping them connect with students.

They initiated a suicide-prevention campaign reminding students they matter and have support. And the UI in April conducted a social media "spring cleaning" event, aimed at encouraging students to review and monitor their social media use.

Sharing an anecdote from that event, Landgrebe said she overheard two women talking about their social media use.

"One turned to the other and said, 'Wow, mine is six hours a day,'" she said. "And the other one turned to her and she said, 'Mine is nine.' And then they were kind of laughing at each other and they were like, 'We shouldn't say that — wow.'

"I think that was the purpose of this event," Landgrebe said. "Starting to build some awareness."

Regent David Barker questioned the focus on the dangers of social media when, he said, the science isn't solid.

"I was surprised at how weak the evidence was. None of them really showed causality," Barker said about studies on social media's effect on mental health. "So my question is, if you have limited time, limited resources, how do you prioritise the messages that you send?"

In response, Landgrebe said counsellors work one-on-one with the issues that students bring to them — including social media.

"I am sitting across from a person in the room, I'm doing the therapy, what experiences are they wanting to process? What are their goals for therapy? That really informs our work together," she said. "And time and time again, without any prompting, in my own experiences in the work I've done with students, they are bringing the social media impact. They are bringing comparisons.... They're bringing distress around body image because this happened on social media." – The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa/Tribune News Service

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