social media, OT, and students

Social media and college students

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In a previous post, I discussed the importance emerging adults place on social participation and how social participation helps with the formation of identity.  Social participation is the primary reason that emerging adults use social media; so, one could argue that social media use could also be important for identity development! 

Social media and phone apps are great ways for students to feel involved on campus, make and maintain friendships, and otherwise feel less lonely. Plus, there are some apps that can be used to help with other areas of occupation that can help students! 

Balance seems to be the key takeaway when looking at the evidence in regards to screen time and social media use in emerging adults. In one study, a high rate of leisure internet use was linked to positive flow experiences among internet friends.1 However, using screens for social participation was found to negatively influence physical activity behaviors in a group of university students.2  Occupational therapists can encourage healthy use of screens while discouraging excessive use that negatively impacts other daily health promoting activities. 

Assessment ideas

Just as in any other habit, an occupational therapist might want to look at time use and balance and see how the student is spending their time.  If it appears (or is identified) that social media or screen use is negatively impacting the student’s other interests or obligations, it would be important for the therapist to understand what the motivators are and what need social media and/or screen use is fulfilling for the student.  Motivational interviewing is a great way to understand how motivated a student is for changing these behaviors.

Intervention ideas3

  • Social media and phone apps can be used for both prevention and health promotion activities.
  • Therapists can reinforce the benefits and possible supports that social media can provide, while discussing the limitations and consequence of excessive screen use (ie less physical activity).
  • Therapists should recognize and address barriers, challenges, and negative effects of social media use in students (can the student use apps that their friends are using or not?).   
  • Social media can be used for
    • Addressing goals (try out Habitica, Strides, or Google Goals);
    • Examining current daily routines and gaining in-depth information regarding patterns and time use, strategies for monitoring use, setting limits, and incorporating breaks (check out FocusMe for an app that can track online habits and can be programmed to block apps and encourage breaks from focused activities – free for Android);
    • emphasizing the importance of balance and off-line meaningful activities;
    • teaching mindfulness techniques (Headspace and Calm apps are two examples);
    • providing essential information and education on the importance and health benefits of including physical activity and healthy eating habits in daily routines.
  • Occupational therapists can assist undergraduate and graduate students to develop greater insight and awareness of their emotional state (Daylio is an online mood tracker diary) and how it influences social media usage.
  • Therapists might need to address interpersonal skills specific to social media use and work on deficit skills, including how students should be presenting themselves online (thinking of the future). 
  • Therapists can help students discover areas for self-development and meaningful career success. Social media and apps may be helpful to improve these areas. 
  • Therapists should use evidence-based strategies to reduce excessive social media use (if use seems to be habitual in nature) – intention implementation and context modifications (see previous blog post on habit for more guidance on these techniques) should be helpful for those students who want to change their behaviors!


  1.  Niland P., Lyons, A. C., Goodwin, I., & Hutton, F. (2015). Friendship work on Facebook: Young adults’ understandings and practices of friendship. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 25(2), 123- 137.
  2. Moreno, M. A., Jelenchick, L. A., Koff, R., Eickhoff, J. C., Goniu, N., Davis, A., . . . Christakis, D. A. (2013). Associations between internet use and fitness among college students: An experience sampling approach. Journal of Interaction Science, 1(4).
  3. Austin-McCain, Melanie (2017) “An Examination of the Association of Social Media Use with the Satisfaction with Daily Routines and Healthy Lifestyle Habits for Undergraduate and Graduate Students,”The Open Journal of Occupational Therapy: Vol. 5: Iss. 4, Article 6. Available at:

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