The potential benefits and negative consequences of social media have long been studied and discussed. However, a lack of attention has been paid to the impact that critical consumption and production of social media have on social support and flourishing for emerging adults.
According to a recent study by Boston College researcher Brian TaeHyuk Keum, people from marginalized racial backgrounds who possess critical media literacy skills reported experiencing higher levels of online social support. This, in turn, led to increased signs of flourishing, such as resilience and life satisfaction, and reduced indications of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The results of the study were published in Emerging Adulthood.
“Emerging research has focused on equipping individuals with skills to critically evaluate the social media content they are consuming, and ways to actively participate in producing social media content that affirms and advocates their sense of self,” Keum writes. “This strategy may help individuals identify and develop a supportive online social network given its interpersonal attributes, but its effectiveness in gaining adequate social support and the downstream flourishing outcomes remains unclear.”
Over 80% of young adults in the United States use social media platforms on a daily basis. Social media use has been shown to have positive effects, such as fostering social connection, elevating self-esteem, and facilitating the exploration of meaning in life. However, it has also been shown to contribute to mental health issues, stress, and addiction. Recent attention has been paid to the impact of social media use on racial and ethnic minorities, whose exposure to racist interactions and content has been shown to have an especially harmful impact.
Emerging adulthood, or the time of life that marks the transition from late adolescence to early adulthood, is a critical period for identity exploration and solidification and for developing coping strategies to manage life stressors. Social support is a crucial factor in development during this period. Therefore, exploring the impact of the benefits and ills of social media use is especially important for this population as they navigate harmful social media interactions and content and online misinformation and disinformation.
Media literacy involves the development of the necessary skills and language to access and manage social media consumption and creation, or prosumption. Most importantly, it reflects the ability to consume social media critically or to examine the underlying sociocultural, political, and economic implications of content and interactions and critically create social media content with these factors in mind. People with these skills will likely be more equipped to build healthy social supports through social media interactions.
Keum suggests that a potential positive effect of ample social support is flourishing, which is described as consisting of:
“. . . a state of ‘feeling good,’ functioning effectively in society, and being less impacted by mental health issues. Research has shown that individuals who flourish are more likely to be resilient, possess the ability and mindset to work through problems and challenges, and experience life satisfaction.”
In the current study, Keum attempts to fill the gap in the literature by investigating the relationship between critical media literacy, the promotion of social support, and flourishing in emerging adults from marginalized racial backgrounds. Keum collected data using self-report measures that assessed social support, resilience, coping, critical social media literacy, life satisfaction, depressive and anxious symptoms, and loneliness.
Three hundred thirty-seven emerging adults participated in the study. Most participants were US-born (84.9%) women (57%). All participants identified as belonging to a racial minority group, with 34% identifying as Black/African American, 36% as Hispanic/Latinx American, and 30% as Asian/Asian American. Three-quarters of participants were employed either full-time or part-time, and most had completed high school or some level of college. Participants reported an average online use of 8.43 hours per day.
Through statistical analysis of the results, Keum found that greater engagement with the critical creation and consumption of social media was associated with greater levels of social support. Social support, in turn, was related to increased flourishing and lower levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Keum describes their findings:
“Our results suggest that critical consumption and prosumption may be digitally relevant and nuanced skills that can help individuals optimize the benefits of social media use. By developing the ability to critically evaluate the credibility and relevance of online content, individuals may be better equipped to navigate an online space that is rife with misinformation, disinformation, violence, and oppressive content. In addition, individuals who engage in critical consumption and prosumption may be more likely to participate in producing and developing social media content (e.g., websites, blogs, videos, photos, channels) that are ethical and critically aware of a topic of interest such as anti-racism.”
Given the nature of the data, it cannot be claimed that there is a causal relationship between critical media literacy and social support, but rather that there is a positive association between the two. Longitudinal data is also required to confirm Keum’s findings. Further research will also need to be conducted with other populations, such as different age groups, White individuals, members of the LBGTQIA community, and individual racial minority groups, to determine if the findings are generalizable. Other study limitations include using a single-item measure of life satisfaction and reliance on self-report surveys.
Keum highlights implications for research and practice, pointing to the effectiveness of media and digital literacy training and programs in educational settings and for high school students. Brief online or in-personal workshops on media literacy, alongside psychoeducation on the adverse effects of harmful social media content, are also recommended as a way to increase competency as well as to study their impact on flourishing. Keum also suggests that mental health professionals working with emerging adults consider incorporating media literacy skills in their work as a preventative measure against mental health issues associated with social media.
As social media plays a significant role in modern life, it is important that we continue to explore the long-term impact that it can have on people. Keum’s research contributes to a vital body of literature on social media. It emphasizes the experiences of racially marginalized individuals, which is crucial, given the impact that racism has on mental health.
Research elsewhere has covered the protective factors against the harms of social media and the concerns associated with social media and psychiatry. For example, one study pointed to the protective nature that a sense of purpose and meaning has against the negative consequences of social media use.
On the other hand, others have brought attention to concerns that social media influencers are now serving as marketers for Big Pharma, as well as how unfettered social media use has contributed to teenage girls adopting characteristics of rare psychiatric disorders as a byproduct of TikTok’s “sick-role subculture.”
Keum’s work, especially their emphasis on critical consumption and creation of social media, is timely in light of these issues, as it brings to awareness the deep need for increased education and understanding of how to produce and consume social media in a way that does not perpetuate harmful social interactions or misinformation/disinformation.
Keum, B. T. (2024). The importance of critical social media literacy in the digital era: Benefits for social support and flourishing. Emerging Adulthood. https://doi.org/10.1177/21676968241226492 (Link)