Social Media Matters: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Online Presence
When was the last time you opened a social media app on your smartphone? Recent data would predict that you have likely checked at least once in the last three hours. Social media is everywhere! Three out of four adults and four out of five young adults regularly utilize social media. Its presence in our lives, and in the lives of athletes, is nearly ubiquitous and its impact on each of us is undeniable. Being that social media use is so prevalent, it is important to understand its advantages and shortcomings for well-being and mental performance amongst athlete populations.
The Downsides of Social Media
Docuseries, news reports, and academic research have opened the eyes of the public regarding the detrimental effects of social media use on mental well-being. Phenomena such as social comparison, cyberbullying, online discrimination, and digital stress capture just some of what today’s athletes face.
Adolescent social media users are likely to compare themselves to others based on their appearance, their social status, friendships, and their social activities like sport participation and success (Prinstein, 2023). Yet, social media content is purposefully curated by creators to share their successes, leading users to engage in self-comparison against positively skewed presentations of others. This habit of unfair comparison has been linked to an increased likelihood for adolescent social media users to develop depressive symptoms. It has also been linked to users experiencing negative body image and distorted body perceptions. Social media fueled social comparison can be unproductive and detrimental for athletes.
Increased connectivity to others via social media has also enabled cyberbullying, online abuse, and discrimination. High-level athletes are more frequently in the public eye and have shared experiences on social media that range from being unfairly critiqued for their performance to being overtly discriminated against (David et al., 2018). In 2021, E.J. Liddell, a star forward for the Ohio State Buckeyes, faced derogatory comments and threats of physical violence via social media following his team’s loss in the NCAA tournament. This experience was deeply unsettling for Liddell, yet he remained active on social media platforms. This persistence is common in an athletic landscape that all but requires high-level athletes to market and monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) online. Yet, it regularly places athletes at the center of vulnerable virtual encounters (Ruser et al., 2022).
The Upsides of Social Media Use
Of course, the opportunity to earn additional income and amass a public following can also provide positive, life-changing opportunities for athletes. Social media also brings great benefits to its users and has positively transformed how athletes live and connect.
Sports have become increasingly globalized with the help of social media and provide fertile ground for authentic and benevolent connection with others. Through social media, athletes have been able to build more diverse and enriching social connections than ever before (Prinstein, 2023).
Social media also provides athletes with a platform to share far-reaching messages in an instant. In recent years, athletes have utilized social media to speak out on matters of social justice and societal issues that are important to them. Athletes agree that having a far-reaching platform has been fulfilling and empowering (David et al., 2018).
Correction & Confidence
Social media use has also impacted athletic performance. The constant presence of social media has provided athletes with resources like access to game film and real-time feedback to enhance their mental performance (Durand-Bush & DesClouds, 2018). More immediate access to game film via social media effectively shortens the time between performance and review to optimize feedback loops that are important to sport development. Immediate access to film also allows athletes to replay and integrate successful experiences into their repertoire for future performances, likely boosting their self-confidence in the process.
Keeping in mind the nuances of social media and its many features, it is important for athletes to consider what is best for them, seeking counsel from trusted coaches, family, friends, and mentors. However, it can be dizzying to know where to start. Here are several research-backed tips for them to consider:
- Social media is complex. Ask yourself: How can I maximize the growth-oriented aspects of social media while minimizing the downfalls?
- Monitor your time spent on social media. Check back in regularly. Consider: Are you accomplishing what you hope to when using social media?
- Focus on personal, process-focused improvement. Resist evaluating yourself based on others’ highlight reels.
Parents can also confront the prevalence of social media by considering how social media use is shaping the mental, emotional, and social experiences of their athletes.
- Consider how athletes are evaluating themselves. Are they focused on incrementally improving their sport skills or are they stacking themselves up against others’ social media posts?
- Athletes are at their best when they gain authentic connections to other people. Guide athletes towards using social media as a tool to enhance their in-person social lives.
- Explore and identify how athletes consume and integrate feedback from social media. How might it be shaping their beliefs about themselves and their identity?
Social media impacts athletes in nuanced and complex ways. It remains a staple in our society, and it is therefore important that we understand these evolving complexities. So, next time you open a social media app on your smart phone, consider how it is impacting you, too.
- David, J. L., Powless, M. D., Hyman, J. E., Purnell, D. M., Steinfeldt, J. A., & Fisher, S. (2018). College student athletes and social media: The psychological impacts of twitter use. International Journal of Sport Communication, 11(2), 163. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsc.2018-0044
- Durand-Bush, N., & DesClouds, P. (2018). Smartphones: How can mental performance consultants help athletes and coaches leverage their use to generate more benefits than drawbacks? Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 9(4), 227-238. https://doi.org/10.1080/21520704.2018.1496211
- Prinstein, M. J. (2023, February 14, 2023). Protecting our children online [Interview]. US Senate; American Psychological Association. https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2023-02-14%20-%20Testimony%20-%20Prinstein.pdf
- Ruser, J. B., Steinfeldt, J., & Friedman, E. J. (2022). Exploring the impacts of social media use on highly visible student-athletes well-being in the NIL-era. Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) 37th Annual Conference, Fort Worth, TX.
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