Susie Bruce: The Impact Of Social Media On The College Athlete

Susie Bruce, M.Ed., is the Director of the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center, which works to end hazing and substance misuse among college and high school students nationwide through evidence-informed, student-tested resources. She has 30 years of experience in collegiate health promotion, with expertise in the social norms approach, peer education, and curriculum infusion. She also directs the APPLE Training Institutes - the leading national strategic training program for substance misuse prevention and health promotion for student-athletes and athletics departments.

There is no question that social media creates peer pressure for student-athletes.

Early in the recruiting process, prospective student-athletes are asked for their social media handles. This can be a great avenue for students to showcase their stats and personality but is also fraught with risks. We’ve all heard stories of students who have had offers rescinded when a school did a deep dive on their social media history and found concerning posts from the past. The pressure to have a polished, “perfect” image starts in high school and escalates in college, especially so for student-athletes who are often in the public eye.

We know that social media platforms are designed to keep people engaged on the channel, even though many now have built-in reminders to “take a break.” So even if people recognize the negative impacts on their mental health, it requires significant effort to change behavior. The public “performance of perfection” inhibits young adults’ natural development. This is a time in life when people naturally take risks and try out new things. When everything is documented and dissected, it can keep students from taking on difficult challenges if they think they might fail and be embarrassed – with a huge group of followers watching and commenting.

Students who spend a lot of time on social media often have misperceptions of how prevalent drinking is because many social influencers focus on alcohol use as part of their “brand.” It can make it seem like everyone is drinking when you see so much positive engagement with alcohol-focused posts. Posts that always have alcohol in the background can have the same effect.

Harmful behaviors, like hazing, draw in many viewers to watch the spectacle and it can be hard to turn away or scroll past them. These images desensitize students to the very real harms of hazing and make it easier for toxic behaviors to spread quickly to geographically dispersed campuses, groups, and athletic teams. Students see hazing practices they wouldn’t know about otherwise.

Social media consumers usually don’t see the negative psychological impact of hazing on individuals or the consequences for the organization – they just see the shocking images. One impact of documenting hazing on social media is that it can make it easier to hold groups accountable. For student-athletes, the personal risks of posting or having images shared by others are greater as they can lose their competition season and any scholarships.

The good news is that many school systems, even in elementary school, are teaching digital citizenship. Most students receive at least some education on what is and is not appropriate to post online, how to report cyberbullying, and the nature of “if you post it, it’s forever.” It’s so important for students to hear these messages early before the desire for peer approval is a dominant driver of behavior.

There’s no one answer or magic wand. Prevention requires a comprehensive approach, and we need to meet students where they are – which is on their phones! Providing credible, accurate health information on social media platforms is essential. The challenge is that algorithms push the most excessive behaviors into students’ feeds. Providing significant quantities of “wholesome” content can help counter all the hazardous images.

For a start, norms realignment education, which focuses on showing accurate data on how many students do not drink or don’t drink in hazardous ways, can counter the misperception that getting wasted is an essential part of the college experience. Providing examples of ways to build a team up in healthy ways, that don’t threaten anyone’s safety, is also important. Many students lacked opportunities for in-person group bonding during the pandemic and positive team cultures can quickly be lost. The Gordie Center has a number of educational Instagram campaigns and 1-minute videos that schools can share on their accounts and even edit to include local resources.