Motivation & Learning: The Impact of Social Media and Mental Health

Part 2: Motivation & Learning: Social Media

As mentioned, our mental health impacts our level of motivation and the way we learn -- whether that learning occurs in the classroom, with friends, or in your daily life. In 2020, how can we have a conversation about mental health without having a discussion about social media? There is a ton of research outlining the benefits and potential consequences of social media in our daily lives. For example, social media use has been linked to body image concerns, depressive symptoms, comparing ourselves to others, and there have been some links to anxiety. While there are some arguments that say maybe all of these mental health concerns actually lead to more social media use, there is a lot of research to back up that social media can be bad for our mental health.

What about learning? There is some research that says social media gets in the way of our ability to concentrate while learning, may lead to poor positive relationships and impact our communication skills, and negatively impact our ability to cope with stress and difficult situations. How might social media impact our motivation, and more specifically our motivation to learn? Well, it depends. Social media, mental health, and motivation are all interconnected so let’s look a bit closer at how social media might influence our levels of motivation.

Let’s use an example of Sarah. Sarah is a 16 year old female identifying high school student who loves going to the gym, spending time with her friends, and is also pretty artistic. Sarah spends anywhere from 4-8 hours on social media daily. She followers her friends, celebrities, and a lot of female identifying instagram influencers who focus on fitness and travel lifestyles. In the last several months, Sarah has been feeling increasingly anxious at school and also depressed on a daily basis. She spends hours scrolling through instagram looking at pictures of women who have “perfect” bodies and are constantly posing on picturesque beaches with friends who are also focused on fitness and travel lifestyles. Soon Sarah finds that she is skipping meals, or trying new diet trends that the women she follows are using. Sarah starts going to the gym more often, for several hours on end. As a result, she feels exhausted when she is at school or at home.

While Sarah is feeling more motivated to focus on fitness and nutrition, she feels distracted and tired at school. She is spending less time with her friends, and less time completing homework because she spends a lot of time at the gym. Will everything Sarah has going on in her life necessarily impact her ability to learn? No, of course not. There are a lot of teenagers and adults who find a balance between their physical health, mental health, and work/school responsibilities. However, in Sarah’s case (and the case of many others) her learning is being impacted.

For many others, learning could be impacted in a lot of different ways. Maybe it looks like scrolling through social media during class time, or going out to lunch with friends and texting or looking at pictures on Instagram the entire time instead of talking to your friends.

Additionally, learning could be impacted by your perceived locus of control. What does this mean? If you believe that things are outside of your control then you have an external locus of control versus feeling like things are in your control or having an internal locus of control. Learners who perceive things as being in their control are more likely to engage, give effort, and persist in academic tasks. What does this have to do with social media? Consider the impact of “following” people who it seems their lives are perfect. They have the perfect partner and friends who they are always doing fun things with. They always appear happy, healthy, and seem to reach their goals. They travel. They take vacations. They get good grades. They have the coolest pet. But for you, things are always...hard. Life feels like a struggle. It might start to feel like all of things are out of your control. It could start to seem like learning is out of your control. As a result, you lose the motivation to learn because why bother if no matter how hard you try things don’t get better?

This does not mean social media is bad for our motivation, mental health, and learning, but it is important we are intentional with how we use it. In fact, some schools are using social media with their students and they found social media combined with learning can increase student involvement, make lessons more fun, and help students have a better understanding of what they are learning. Social media may also help students feel more connected to their teachers and positively impact teacher-student relationships. If we can use social media to support the belief that things, and specifically learning, are in our control then maybe we will feel more motivated overall to learn. This could like sharing our successes and failures on social media, or maybe encouraging others to share their failures too. Maybe intentional use of social media is about being more authentic with others and ourselves -- both the good and the parts we’re ashamed, embarrassed, or scared to share.

As we close this post, I’ll leave you with some questions to ask yourself and others.

What do you want to learn more about? What subjects are you struggling with at school? What areas of growth might social media be able to support you? Social media and the internet provide us with a ton of resources and access to information. How are you using that information? Is your instagram feed filled with people who inspire you, people who can teach you, and people who provide further resources to supplement your learning and potential growth? If not, ask yourself what changes can you make to increase your motivation, balance your mental health, and contribute to your ability to learn and grow.

Be on the lookout for the next part of this series: Strategies to Improve Motivation


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