Yes, student tech use needs to be monitored – but social media can also be used as a force for good

Clare Bradshaw, executive manager at Unihealth, discusses why the issue of social media and mental health isn’t black and white, and how tech can be used to help support students

It can only be a positive development that the potential risks around the use of technology, particularly social media, are being brought to the fore and discussed. With a fierce national debate around just how much technology may or may not be to blame for causing or exacerbating mental health issues, perhaps it can be presumed that overuse is something to be concerned about, but that also technology can, if used correctly, be a force for good.

For university students navigating the complexities of student life – exams, studying, socialising, peer pressure – technology becomes another part of a complex jigsaw. And we are right to be concerned about technology’s effects on them. The University Student Mental Health Survey of 37,500 students, published in spring 2019, reveals “alarmingly high” levels of psychological distress. In addition, a poll from the Association of Colleges  from 2017 found that 85% of colleges reported the number of students with disclosed mental health difficulties had increased over the past three years.

It is up for debate to what extent technology is a primary or significant factor in this scenario, but it is important to remember that balance is always key. Students should be encouraged to actively do the things they love – be that a walk, reading a book, or having dinner with friends – but also ensure they use technology and social media in a targeted way, so that it is useful, rather than overwhelming.

In support of this, Jisc’s recent Horizons report argues technology could be used as part of the solution to address student mental health issues.

For more info on the Horizons report, see our coverage here

Jisc’s report, released in March 2019, is focused on the mental health crisis amongst university students in the UK. The report’s findings suggest that the crisis in mental health is down to a mix of factors, including changing demographics, financial concerns, and social media, which is criticised for creating a loss of privacy and the drive to compare unnecessarily with others.

Among the report’s recommendations is the need for 24/7 support for mental health issues, and to ensure apps and other self-help support for students are made as accessible as possible.

 It is up for debate to what extent technology is a primary or significant factor in this scenario, but it is important to remember that balance is always key.

One university already adopting this approach is University College Birmingham (UCB) which has one of the most socially diverse FE, HE and postgraduate students in the sector. They specialise in vocational qualifications, educating 7,500 students across four main schools: The College of Food, The Business School, Sport and Creative Services, and Education, Health and Community.

Student retention, health and wellbeing support is top of the agenda at UCB. Year-on-year, they have invested in their Health and Wellbeing Service, increasing their team to meet student demand.

The team is instrumental to delivering 24/7 support for mental health issues. It currently comprises two full-time counsellors, one mental health advisor, five placement counsellors, five wellbeing officers and a nurse, who support students with a wide range of difficulties – from feeling low or depressed, being unsure about identity and struggling with relationships to having eating difficulties, homesickness, low self-esteem and grief and loss. The team also offer counselling, access to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), workshops, mental health first aid and general wellbeing support.

From the archive: Social media mental health epidemic

However, in line with the Jisc report recommendations, UCB also  wanted to ensure they reached out to every student – even those who did not like the idea of formal wellbeing support in the shape of counselling or other talking therapies and those hesitant about self-referral.

To address the need for accessible self-help, they are trialling one of the several digital wellbeing tools on the market, Unihealth.

Students opting into the service receive proactive motivational support via Facebook Messenger spanning a broad range of topics including transition, making friends, homesickness, depression, anxiety, crisis support, life skills, alcohol and drugs, nutrition, sexual health, sleep advice, exam stress, student finance and vaccinations with the aim of enhancing students’ self-efficacy and resilience.

In this way, technology is used as a force for good, to proactively support students throughout the entirety of their journey through university.

It is hard to strike the right balance and there is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution – every student’s journey is different and they will all face their own challenges. For universites willing to embrace digital technology and social media as part of their support strategy, they will be best placed to offer innovative and accessible ways to help their students while they learn, which can only be a good thing.