Study reveals connection between students’ mental health, relationship with technology

By Brenda Haines

MTV’s 24-hour college network, mtv-U, along with the Jed Foundation and The Associated Press, recently released the results of a new poll of college students’ close relationship with technology and how it is affecting their state of mind.

According to the study, which surveyed more than 2,000 undergraduate students at randomly chosen four-year colleges about their mental health in relation to being perpetually connected to technology, approximately seven out of 10 students reported reading cries for emotional help from people close to them on social networking websites. While most students polled said they would offer support in some way to those struggling, less than half would make a personal visit.

“There is anonymity with social networking sites,” said Dr. Nicole Ranttila, a licensed clinical psychologist and Girard native. “One can place status updates that may be cries for help, but if the person regrets it later, it could be played off as a joke or just a bad day. If a person really needs help, the social networking site may potentially reach more people than the person would typically come across in a day’s activities. Furthermore, young adults often want to reach out to people who they feel are most like them – their peers.”

By reaching out, these students are making an effort to be understood, Ranttila said.

“Who better to understand than those they may have chosen to be in their friend circle?” she said. “Unfortunately, when a social networking avenue is chosen as a cry for help, many people are unsure how to deal with the information presented. The uncertainty may come from the fact that friends are not professionals, friends have their own fears and emotions associated with having a friend in danger, and others may take concerns as not serious since they are presented on the Internet.”

For many college students, being constantly connected to digital communication media adds an additional complexity to their day-to-day lives.

Approximately 48 percent of the students polled reported that when they read e-mails, text messages and posts on social networking sites, half of the time they are unsure about whether the sender was serious or joking, which leads to misunderstandings, confusion and uncertainty.

“It is all too easy to misunderstand or be unsure of the tone or intent of a text message or online post,” Ranttila said. “Friends may become quite stressed when reading an ambiguous message from a friend, especially when verbal and face-to-face contact cannot be made to clarify a message.”

Ranttila said if this pattern of misunderstandings persists, ongoing conflict might become part of the relationship. Some friends may be hesitant to explore such patterns with their friends, which can result in significant interpersonal stress.

“I’ve said things to friends over Facebook and then realized how rude I sounded,” said Youngstown State University sophomore Amy Williamson. “You never know when to take people seriously or when to assume they’re joking.”

Today’s college students have been perpetually connected to technology since their childhood, so 57 percent of those polled reported they would actually feel more stressed if they were to unplug from their devices. Stress has caused 63 percent of these students to withdraw from friends and social settings.

“I’m online constantly, and my phone is never away from me,” Williamson said. “I’ve even found that I’ll pick up my phone and carry it with me to the kitchen or to the restroom without thinking about it.”

As an intervention, Williamson’s friends played a trick on her one day and hid her phone when she walked out of the room.

“They told me I spent too much time on my phone, and I’d get it back after I had some time apart,” she said. “Even though I knew my phone wasn’t lost or broken, I was angry, upset and totally stressed because I didn’t have it on me. My phone is pretty much my baby. There are times when I wish I could just toss my phone in a drawer and forget about it for a couple days. But I know that I could barely manage a couple hours, let alone a couple days.”

Students are busy, Ranttila said, so technology can make life easier. However, although social networking sites are “fun and interesting tools to increase connection,” it’s important to make sure that they “do not replace the value of relationships and attachment,” she said.

“The trends noted in the millennial generation are continuing as younger generations prepare for college,” she said. “It’s all about ease and convenience, even with making friends. I encourage people to utilize them to augment existing relationships, stay in touch, meet new people and cultivate meaningful interactions away from the computer, in addition to those at the computer.”

For many YSU students, the results of the mtv-U poll confirm what they already believe to be true about students’ mental health and connection to technology.

“The human race isn’t just attached to our technology, we’re dependent upon it,” Williamson said. “We’d pretty much die without it.”

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