When she began her freshman year in 2011, Sydney embarked on a tumultuous transformation. She had been accepted to her “reach school," Duke University, where students seemed to strive for perfection both academically and socially.
The change came fast and without warning for Sydney, who asked to be referred to by her first name for this story to protect her privacy. In the classroom, she did not coast by as she had in high school. Her grades lagged, friendships both formed and faltered, and at times she lost confidence. Although many students find it difficult to adjust to college, Sydney carried the additional weight of an anxiety diagnosis. Change, she noted, can exacerbate the effects of a mental health disorder.
Sydney turned to her phone for an alternate reality. In the current college culture, Sydney explained, "the perfect girl on Instagram" looks like she's having "so much fun," has more followers than she is following, and collects "likes" in nanoseconds.
As she scanned the posts and profiles of her peers, Sydney struggled to distinguish between fact and fiction. She felt a disconnect from the image of perfection.
"I was glued to my phone freshman year. I couldn't put it down," recalled Sydney, who graduated from Duke this spring. "I was more critical of myself, of what I posted, of what I had up."
College students today are more detached from their peers than ever before. Research shows they're less likely to have tangible relationships; enter college having spent less time socializing as teens; are more likely to be heavily medicated; and feel a greater pressure to be academically and socially successful than in the past.
Paired with the increasing dependence on social media, these factors leave students susceptible to mental health complications, some experts say. Meanwhile, the college community is using technology to reach students who need help.
In the last year, anxiety has superseded depression as the most prevalent mental health disorder across college campuses, according to a study by the American College Health Association. Approximately one in six students has been diagnosed or treated for anxiety. As emotional health takes a turn for the worse, Sydney believes, students spend more time on social media.
"Students are always on on their phones," Sydney said. "That's just the nature of our generation. We are always interconnected, always in communication."
The facts support Sydney's assertion: Social media usage has increased nationally by almost 1000 percent in eight years for people between 18 and 29, according to findings from the Pew Research Center. More than 98 percent of college-aged students use social media, says consumer insight service Experian Simmons. In addition, an annual nationwide survey of college students by UCLA found that 27.2 percent of students spent more than six hours on social media a week in 2014, up from 19.9 percent in 2007. The increase may be problematic, since heavy Facebook usage can lead to symptoms of envy, anxiety and depression, according to a recent study by the University of Missouri.
Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic For Anxiety and Related Disorders, explains that social media acts as a counterfeit reality for students unable to cope with their circumstances.
"Social media and other technologies can give an individual a false sense of having true relationships, which can get in the way of developing peer support and mentor relationships,” Albano said. "In actuality, they never cross over to make an engaging relationship with such people in the real world."
Perfectionism In A Post
Social media, experts say, can push undergrads toward competitive comparisons. And students agree.
"Social media is a really easy way to feel excluded. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat make me hyper-aware of the activities I wasn’t invited to partake in, and less involved in the activities that are actually in front of me,” said Lily Osman, 18, a student at Franklin and Marshall College. "Anxiety makes me feel as if I did something wrong, which rewires my feelings towards my classmates. Comparing myself to others is blatantly unhealthy. It makes me question my place in life."
Dr. Gary Glass, the associate director of counseling and psychological services at Duke, notes that the classroom is no longer the only environment that demands perfection.
“People tend to publish the most impressive, entertaining, and/or attractive versions of themselves on social media platforms," Glass said in an email. "This can create a false impression of how much happier or more successful others are."
A number of students who spoke to The Huffington Post said they know online profiles don't always accurately reflect a person's life. But they acknowledged that social media platforms incite anxiety all the same.
"You go on social media and only see the amazing things people are accomplishing but do not see the paths they took to get there. You feel like you aren't doing enough -- not traveling enough, not making enough friends, not working out enough, et cetera," said Cassidy Bolt, a 19-year-old Duke student.
By only presenting the glossed-over version of their lives, students say, they sometimes mask their struggles and discomfort from the very peers who could provide support.
"It’s a double-edged sword," Sydney said. "When I’m getting positive feedback on social media, it can help put me at ease, but negative feedback -- or lack of feedback -- can make me anxious."
Disconnecting from social media may have an equally detrimental effect upon students' anxiety.
"There is a tangible increase in people's need to be connected at all times and clear, visceral discomfort when 'offline' for too long," said Dr. Vivian Mougios, a neuropsychologist and learning specialist.
As Glass put it, "We need to treat the water, and not simply each fish that's struggling."
Harnessing Technology For Good
Although some students increasingly feel a need to disconnect from social media, universities and their students are also trying to find ways to use technology to reach those who are struggling -- from Facebook support groups, to mental health apps, to online therapy games.
Drexel University developed an initiative in June to screen students through a "mental health kiosk" that looks like an ATM. The kiosk reads, "Get a Check-Up From the Neck Up," according to USA Today, encouraging students to gauge their stress levels when unable or unwilling to seek out a professional.
Technology can also help intervene in dangerous situations.
In April, after someone posted a suicide note on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak at the University of Michigan, the school's social media director Nikki Sunstrum was able to contact campus police and locate the student within 24 hours. Immediately after the note was posted, many students posted on Yik Yak offering the original poster support and advice.
Sunstrum posted information about the school's psychological services on Yik Yak. Since then, the school has devised a "positivity pledge" to cultivate a safe and constructive community online.
UM's administration used social media platforms that were readily available, Sunstrum told HuffPost. "We are not reinventing the medium [for outreach] and we don't have to at this point, because those resources are already in place," Sunstrum said.
Similarly, University of Pennsylvania incoming freshmen banded together to address mental health concerns in a Facebook support group. Students unsure of how to cope with mental health disorders after high school say the group has been helpful for transitioning, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Campus psychological services could build on these efforts and adapt to the changing culture on campus by using "transparency and education," recommended Mougios.
"The more colleges focus on educating students and providing resources, the better opportunities they will have to help," Mougios said. "All students should have semester or yearly 'check ups.' Likewise, colleges should ensure there are multiple resources easily accessible."
As Sydney embarks on the next chapter of her life, she looks back at her time at Duke fondly, and sees the hyperaware, social media-obsessed nature of college as a learning experience.
"I have found balance devoid of the pressures of perfection and the stigma that accompanies mental health," Sydney said. "I want nothing more than to help others find confidence in themselves, too."
Have you had an experience with anxiety or mental health on campus that you want to share? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.