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Longmont student investigates the effects social media has on mental illness with peers

Sloan Alber received a scholarship for her academic research paper.
sloan alber
Photo of Sloan Alber

As Sloan Alber geared up to graduate from Silver Creek High School earlier this year, she took to the Internet to figure out which colleges and scholarship opportunities she should apply for. In her search, Alber happened upon the 2021 Research and Academic Paper Scholarship offered by the National Society of High School Scholars, or NSHSS, and applied immediately. 

According to the NSHSS website, the Research and Academic Paper Scholarship this year would be awarded to 40 high school students who had written academic papers as class assignments in high school.

Alber, who had written an academic paper, “Exploring the Effects of Social Media on Mental Health,” in her advanced placement research class her junior year of high school, figured she might as well submit her paper and try her hand for the scholarship. She sent in her application in January and, until August, forgot about the scholarship, she said. 

As a junior, Alber arrived on the first day of the year-long advanced placement research class without knowing what to expect. She quickly learned the students would be expected to formulate their own research question, conduct an experiment and collect data related to the question and draw statistical conclusions in their final research paper. 

While contemplating what she should study, “I was thinking about major issues and one of the big things that came to mind was the general issue of mental health that I was noticing in my high school,” Alber said, “and I started to think about the idea — not a new one — that social media might be behind a lot of that issue.” 

From there, Alber began looking into the previous research that had been done on how social media can affect mental health. “I found a lot of statistics that were interesting but also really concerning,” she said. 

Throughout her research, a Harvard study into the effects of social media on the brain stood out to Alber the most. The study found that every time an individual receives positive social stimuli — in the case of social media, a like or a view for example — dopamine gets released into the brain, Alber said, which can cause users to become addicted to using social media applications. 

The study’s findings, which were based on results from studies conducted on college-aged students, led Alber to wonder how social media usage was affecting her high school peers, specifically in terms of their mental health. She decided to pose this as her research question and develop a study with a more local focus.

To get the ball rolling, Alber sent out an interest survey to every student in her high school asking if they would be interested in participating in a study of social media usage and its effects on mental health. From the survey, Alber gathered a “statistically sound population of students in the school” who would be representative of the other students, she said. 

To begin the study itself, Alber sent out a survey to all the participants asking questions about their mental wellbeing at that moment, “to gather baseline data,” she said. Deciding that asking students about their overall mental wellbeing was too broad of a question, Alber’s survey focused on the various aspects of mental wellbeing, she said, such as their levels of nervousness, anxiety, restlessness, energy, effort and appetite. 

Next, the students were randomly assigned to two different groups — Alber instructed one group to continue using social media as they normally would and the other group to limit their social media usage to an hour or less per day. 

After a week, Alber sent both groups the same survey they filled out initially and compared their answers using a two-sample-T-test, she said, a statistical method used to test the difference between two population means. The more recent surveys showed that the group who had cut down on their social media usage had improved in areas of anxiety, restlessness, energy, effort, appetite and overall mental health compared to before, Alber said. 

“From the study, I was able to draw the conclusion that social media should be limited as much as possible and it’s something that people should be aware of and cautious about,” she said.

Alber’s subsequent research paper, “Exploring the Effects of Social Media on Mental Health,” reflected her findings, in part through pie charts. According to Alber, the pie charts show that, from students who reported how much they used social media, 10% used it for 1-2 hours per day, 21% for 2-3 hours, 21% for 3-4 hours, 15% for 4-5 hours, over 25% used it for 5+ hours and 10% of that over 8 hours per day. 

For her and her peers, Alber’s findings were appalling. “It was shocking and eye-opening for everyone in my class to see how truly addicted people are,” she said. “It’s concerning that something that’s such a huge part of your life is also so harmful for your wellbeing.” 

Alber’s peers and loved ones were impacted by her findings, she said. For Alber, the research project made her want to further her studies on the issue and draw more attention to it. 

By August, Alber was nearly on her way to starting her college career at the University of Colorado- Boulder when she received the email declaring her a recipient of NSHSS’s Research and Academic Paper Scholarship. 

Today, while she studies biochemistry and business entrepreneurship at CU Boulder, Alber still feels inspired to continue the research she conducted two years ago, this time among her peers at the collegiate level. She also is in the process of getting “Exploring the Effects of Social Media on Mental Health” published through the university, “which will hopefully broaden the population of people who can actually read it and hear about it,” she said. 

“I hope (the research paper) is something that helps make people more aware of some of the causes for issues in mental wellbeing,” Alber said. “Although it is certainly not the sole cause of mental health issues, many people would agree that we could all benefit from some tools to help us with our mental health, especially after the past couple years.”