How Does Social Media Really Make You Feel?

By Zach Broeren

The most recent Facebook scandal has revealed to the world that the company has known about the harm its platform causes, but actively ignores it. Out of all the accusations, one was more impactful for college-aged people than others: Facebook’s negative impact on the mental health of teenagers. The internal documents released by a then whistleblower, now self-identified as Frances Haugen, are some of the most damning documents against Facebook over its history. It is now becoming evident that social media plays a largely negative role in young adults’ lives.

Just like most young adults, social media plays an important role in many Denisonians’ lives. A past 127 writer, The Darian of Harrington, found that 79.3% of Denison students have reported using their smartphones at least 3 hours a day. With such a heavy usage of smartphones (and thus social media) in their lives, how does social media affect the lives of Denison students? In the March 2021 survey, Denison students were asked several questions about their social media usage and its effects. They were asked, after being on social media, if they felt more angry, anxious, happy, and connected to others.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Denison students do not report feeling burdened by social media with anger and anxiety while actually feeling more connected to those around them. 48.9% of Denisonians reported not being made angry by social media versus only 18.3% of Denisonians who reported that social media makes them feel angry. Similar numbers are recorded for anxiety, as 43% of Denisonians were not made anxious by social media while 34.3% of Denisonians said that social media did make them feel anxious. Numbers indicating a positive social media experience was also reported in the connected category, as 45.3% of Denisonians believe that they feel more connected after social media use versus only 26.9% of students who said they do not feel more connected. Happiness is an interesting category, as it is the only question to host a majority of responses in one section: 53.1% of Denisonians felt neutral about whether social media made them happy. However, 26.7% of Denison Students felt happy after social media use, higher than the 20.2% that did not feel happy after social media use.

Similar to the Facebook scandal mentioned above, Instagram has been found to have a negative impact on young women. The same whistleblower reported that Instagram knew about the negative impact of use on the body image of young women. However, this report is not the first; years of research have indicated similar results, such as the fact that social media use is correlated with a rise in eating disorders or that depression, lower self esteem, and appearance anxiety are all associated with Instagram usage. Considering this research, are Denisonians divided along a gender line when it comes to social media attitudes?

Women feel significantly more anxious and connected than men do after using social media. It appears that the research done on young women about Instagram usage holds true for social media use for women at Denison; they are much more anxious than men. 40% of women either selected agree or strongly agree on whether they felt more anxious after social media usage, while only 26% of men reported feeling anxious.

Women also feel more connected to others after social media use compared to men. There are many different reasons why this may occur: women and men could have different definitions of what connected means, women could follow more people or may be followed by more people on social media, or other explanations. Regardless, 51% of women felt more connected after social media use, compared to 37% of men.

While men feel angrier after social media use and women feel happier after social media use, these results were not significant. 21% of men reported feeling angry after social media use compared to 17% of women, and almost identically 28% of Women and 27% of Men reported feeling happier after social media usage. Both of these results were not significant at the .05 level.

Nonbinary and Trans folk reported feeling less angry, anxious, happy, and connected than women and less angry, anxious, and connected than men. I can’t assert these findings with much confidence because the sample size of Nonbinary and Trans folk at Denison is incredibly low, with only 13 responses (11 for Nonbinary and 2 for Transgender) in the March 2021 survey. Still, the results are suggestive that TNBs are having roughly the same emotional responses though less connection with others.

There was also another interesting, gendered difference: Men choosing the “Strongly Disagree” (SD) and “Strongly Agree” (SA) options more frequently than women. In the 4 questions, there were 8 opportunities to either select SD or SA: in 6 of the 8 opportunities, men chose SA and SD more. Overall, men on average either selected SA or SD 16.5% of the time while women on average either selected SA or SD only 8.4% of the time, almost half the rate as men. This is an interesting relationship that I cannot explain right now.

I was curious to see if there was a behavioral byproduct of emotions regarding social media and thought of one: Stress about eating. This would make sense as a potential byproduct as Instagram fuels negative body image and therefore stress about eating too much. In the March 2021 survey, Denison students were asked to report their stress levels about eating a meal, and I compared those results to anxiety and connectedness from social media.

Does Social Media Use Boost Stress about Eating? By Gender and Emotional Reactions

There was no link between anxiety from social media and stress about eating for men, but that was not true for women. Women who feel disconnected and anxious from social media are more likely to have stress regarding how much they eat. However, women who feel connected to others on social media do not take on stress about eating when social media anxiety soars.

Social media attitudes for Denisonians are quite finicky: they both go against conventional wisdom and support current research. Many people hold a perception that social media use has a negative impact on our lives; it makes us angrier, more anxious, and less happy. This assumption could not be any less true for Denisonians: Denisonians feel more connected, happier, and less angry and anxious after social media usage. However, the break from conventional wisdom ends after this research applies a gendered lens: our data of Denison students roughly aligns itself with research done on the effects of Instagram on young women. If social media is not a way to deepen a connection with others, perhaps it’s time to reassess why you’re using it.

Zach Broeren, a Junior at Denison University majoring in Political Science, is now starting to figure out too late he probably should have majored in Data Analytics.

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