Key Research

“Am I Even Going to Be Well-Liked in Person?”: First-Year Students’ Social Media Use, Sense of Belonging, and Mental Health

Key Takeaways:

  • Mental health concerns represent a critical issue in higher education. 
  • Three main themes were explored in this study: 
    • seeking belonging through in-person interactions 
    • seeking belonging through social media use 
    • experiencing negative mental health impacts of social media


LiveMore ScreenLess’s Summary

The authors of this study were primarily interested in how social media use affects sense of belongingness, including transition issues influencing first-year college students. Belongingness was focused on as core concepts because the desire to belong is an essential human motivation.  Transitions to college were selected as it is such a pivotal time. A sense of belonging for first-year students remains a priority, particularly for students from marginalized populations, such as BIPOC communities.

Between 2007–2018, mood symptoms in college students, such as anxiety and depression, nonsuicidal self-injury, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts all increased. Additionally,  approximately 85% of students experienced elevated levels of distress during the pandemic. Social connectedness, defined as “the feelings of belonging and affiliation that emerge from interpersonal relationships within social networks,” creates a strong sense of belonging and  contributes to  lower levels of stress and depression

Three themes emerged through analysis of these conversations. The need for social connection happens by seeking to belong through in-person interactions and seeking to belong through social media use. However, the negative mental health impacts of social media do take a toll .

Students stressed the value of finding belonging and connection offline (i.e., in-person connections), while also emphasizing the importance of staying connected via social media. Participants articulated a desire to find belonging through shared identity and experiences. Interactions with faculty members mattered to students as well.

Participants reflected on how the use of social media in college facilitated a sense of belonging, both among peers and within the context of the institution. The idea of a physical act (keeping your door open in your residence hall to meet peers) as being similar to a digital act (sharing glimpses into your life on social media to share about yourself) was common among participants. Visible reminders of community spirit and a sense of togetherness were important to participants as they transitioned (both mentally and physically) to college. It was widely agreed that most people try to keep their posts positive. 

Stress and anxiety related to social media use were the most salient negative mental health outcomes students discussed. This includes comparisons to others, and questioning if they were actually “liked” in real life as compared to  online.

The descriptive nature of this study provides insights to higher education staff working to meet the needs of college students today, including marginalized students. Analysis of student interviews suggested that students often feel a sense of belonging through social media and make connections through digital interactions; however, these interactions are not always positive and often contribute to poor mental health. The negative mental health outcomes students’ themselves associate with social media use are concerning. Students could clearly identify how and why social media negatively affected their mental health, there exist opportunities to discuss this issue with incoming students. Student affairs educators can invite students into honest conversations about healthy social media use and consumption, including the potential impact on mental health, identity, and values.

Michael J. Stebleton, Lisa S. Kaler & Charlie Potts (2022) “Am I Even Going to Be Well-Liked in Person?”: First-Year Students’ Social Media Use, Sense of Belonging, and Mental Health, Journal of College and Character, 23:3, 210-226.

Topics: Positive Social Norms , Social Media , Social/Emotional Learning

Year: 2022

Participants: 26 qualitative interviews with first-year students at large, public University in midwest