What Effect Does Social Media Have on Students?

By 11/03/2020 March 12th, 2020 Computing, Cyberpsychology, Social Media

What do we say about social media that hasn’t been said before?

We know why we use social media – we want to stay connected with our circle of friends, or maybe more accurately we want to lurk so that we can find out about people we know without the need to ask. We like to see how people’s lives unfold, or are being lived.

I write that as an adult. But what about younger people? What about the students in our classroom? (Assuming your classroom is full of post-primary, FE or HE students). How does effects does social media have on their learning or well-being? How does it impact their mental health? Do we think about this, or consider it a factor in their lives at all?

Common Sense Media found that one in five teens reported social media has made them feel more confident, compared with 4% who said it has the opposite affect in making them feel less confident. In the survey of more than 1,000 13 – 17-year-olds:

  • 28% said social networking made them feel more outgoing
  • 5% who said it made them feel less so; and
  • 29% said it made them feel less shy versus the
  • 3% who said it made them feel more introverted.

When it comes to relationships with friends, more than half (52%) of teens said social media helped to improve relationships versus just 4% who said it had a negative impact.

So how do we process this? Do we accept these figures as indicative of the wider student body? We are talking about 1000 teenagers after all. OR should we still question whether teenagers know what is good for them? I say this in a careful and caring manner. As a parent, I know what my eldest daughter needs, even if she tells me otherwise. I have to balance this against her getting older and more mature while balancing this change. I will understand the effects of her choice much better than she will at this stage. So while I have to strike a balance as a parent, I still have to operate as the adult, as the parent and as someone with a greater understanding of the cost of staying up late against what she will gain (she’ll read in bed). And so here I believe we need to strike the very real balance against the potential cost of social media against the real consequences.

The students in our classes are no different. The effect social media can have on them in their formative years is profound and we need to be aware of how this can present in our classrooms.

Major Issues Ahead

I should have maybe said this earlier, but I’m not saying social media is bad for you.

Like many things, moderation is the key. But as an adult, I should know how to put this in place in my life (except for my waistline, but that’s a work in progress). Our students may not.

More importantly, they may not have received guidance on how to navigate the world of social media (or the internet) and are making the best of it on their own. There is much in social media that can harm and I believe it is our duty to help them navigate this aspect of life that once it is out there, it can never be returned or deleted.

As teachers we need to help students turn social media into a force for their good, well-being and eventually employment. But we can only do that by guiding them – social media is a huge part of their life. In a recent survey I asked students in my college to complete, nearly 50% responded as using social media for more than 3 hours per day. 68% checked their social media before going to sleep and 52% checked their social media on waking up (defined as the time before getting showered or having breakfast).

There is so much happening in our students lives that we are almost sleepwalking past them. And when we consider cyber bullying, mental health, concentration, exam performance or sleeping patterns suddenly the issue becomes much wider and all encompassing.

Self-Image Issues

This can unfortunately be something that destroys young people from the inside out. If they are not hearing positive self-image beliefs at home or from people they know and trust, the world can be a very unforgiving place. Add to this the relentless culture of perfect selfies - with or without the added feature of Photoshop, our young people can be spiraling into a downward spiral of lacking self-confidence, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, self-harm, eating disorders or any combination of the above.
You'll hopefully have noticed that I did not make any of this gender-specific. That's because it can affect any of us and as educators, parents or family friends we should all be on the lookout for our young people who may be going through something silently. It takes a village to raise a child remember.


You might look on this as one of the 'lesser' evils, but it can still have a serious effect on young people. There is a tendency that young people are given phones and then left to navigate the online world, but the effects can also be felt offline. If we are always entertained, distracted or looking at our phones, then we may never learn the skills of working solidly at something. And I know we can all be guilty of this one - we are working on something, then we get an email, or a message (old-school message, messenger or WhatsApp, it doesn't matter which) and our attention is gone. But as adults, we hopefully have the willpower to setup a working environment that will help mitigate this, but do teenagers have the same willpower?
This can then have an impact on exam performance, which then affects university entrance, which impacts life goals and life chances. It may sound alarmist, but there is an issue that needs addressed here that as educators, we cannot necessarily control, but need to be proactive in discussion with parents about the potential impacts of social media on young people and their exam performance.

Privacy and Data Sharing

This is one that seems to scare people like myself (those that work/teach Computing) or people of my generation because we can see how this affects our lives. We've all seen the tracking bots online advertising the sites we've just looked at (in my case today it's been cycling helmets), but privacy concerns reach much further than this. I have taught my students about this and tell them a story of a holiday I spent in France in the summer of 2018. Google was able to tell me (via email) of everyplace I had been in France - this was easier as I'd used Google Maps for navigation purposes, but it's a little sobering when you see two weeks' of travels on one screen.

It's also a matter of public record regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which "personal information [was] taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements" (Guardian, 2018). The initial impact was on the American elections, but also used in the Brexit referendum to target voters.

The impact of this is how personal and private data is collected and used with our without our knowledge or permission. The issue of privacy and data sharing is much to big a topic to discuss at length here, but for our young people, guidance and education needs to be given on how social media can act as a public record of everything that we put up there - and what our friends put up there about us too. It might not all be positive or glowing and could easily cost us a job. There are many tales of how this has been an outcome of an unpleasant exchange or comment on social media.

For people who are not digital natives, our life existed before social media and many of our mistakes are only held in memory - the same might not be true for a student in your class and the impact of that may have catastrophic effects on their well being.


This is the headline-catcher but it really can be the umbrella term for other aspects we've discussed. Cyberbullying is so much more insidious and dangerous because there is no release or escaping it, unless the person goes offline - which is difficult, given how integrated the online world is for students today.

A huge issue within the nature of cyberbullying is the aspect of platforms like Snapchat which are built for the messages to be deleted or inform the sender when a screenshot is taken. As someone who teaches computing and is a parent (looking at both sides of the issue) I have to ask what the purpose of this function is? Why did the developer add this function? What is a person doing or saying that they don't want a record of the message?

There is also much more in this topic than what I can cover here: harassment, denigration, flaming, impersonation, threats, cyber stalking, exclusion, blackmail, grooming and even innocent bystanders are all topics that I can't go into detail on here (but maybe will later), but social media can allow all of these to happen and with smartphones, get delivered right into the pocket of the bullied - taking us back to the initial point that it's almost impossible to escape.

Mood and Overall Well-Being

Our collective mental health is taking a real battering at present. Between the stresses of work, home and societal issues, our mental health has never appeared more fragile. Daily battles happen online over issues like transgenderism, abortion, pay equality, race, climate change and feminism. But when you read the conversations, read what people are saying to each other online, read the hate and vicious hatred for people of a different opinion, you may miss the fact that people are saying this to people. And that takes a toll on the individual.

I'm not saying those issues aren't important, but when we dehumanise a person and forget to speak respectfully, listen to a different viewpoint and see the world through the eyes of a different point of view, we lose our ability to empathise, but we also add more negativity to the online world that has a very real weight and impact on a person.

When we scale this down to a young person - they may feel like their whole world is caving in and on some occasions the only way out that is presented to them is suicide.

I haven't even mentioned Caroline Flack (2020), Ronan Hughes (2017), the Blue Whale Challenge (2016) or Momo (2018). The consequences are real and should not be ignored or dismissed.

Concluding Thoughts

To give a sense of balance, there is a lot of positive aspects to social media that should not be ignored. Keeping in contact with geographically-distant family members; networking; building online media followings around shared interests; online forum groups etc. can all have a positive effect on our lives. My own writing and research is enabled and bettered by online sharing, communication and conversations. A professional persona can be crafted to build a personal portfolio around a person’s expertise to showcase talents to perspective employers. Creating and contributing to online groups – including those who meet in real life.

All these things can add to a person’s life and can add value and understanding in our subjects for students – if used intentionally and purposefully.

However there are aspects of the online social media world that we must give guidance and mentoring to our students. You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t buy cigarettes until we’re 16; alcohol, voting and driving until we’re 18 but we expect children to navigate smartphones and the online world with no assistance once they have a smartphone? As teachers I know we already have a full workload, but if we say we are interested in the development and success of our students, then this is another area that we need to show care and professional interest.

If we become so focused on academic success, while our students fall apart in their personal lives. what have we really achieved?


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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