Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become conventional outlets for expressing a range of emotions for many teens and college-aged adults.
Researchers recently found that student posts following the campus shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008 provided key insights into reactions as young adults shared their grief and sought comfort.
Conducted by Amanda Vicary, a doctoral student, and R. Chris Fraley, psychology professor with the University of Illinois, the study was initiated after Vicary noticed the immediate reactions of friends on Facebook to either post memorial ribbons as profile pictures or join groups supporting campus students.
“I started looking (for studies on this topic) and realized that no research had been done looking at how people use the Internet specifically to grieve or investigating how students responded psychologically to these shootings,” she said.
The study is the first of its kind to offer a snapshot look at student reactions to campus shootings. Findings revealed that their online grief activity had neither a positive nor negative impact on their psychological health over time.
Vicary started her research two weeks following the first shootings by sending an e-mail to 900 Virginia Tech students with Facebook accounts, inviting them to participate.
A survey was presented to the 124 students who accepted the offer to participate.
The survey was geared to specifically assess for symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As part of the study, students were also asked to participate in online and offline activities related to the shootings.
Vicary conducted a second survey of many of the same students six weeks later, representing the two-month mark following the shootings.
Following the campus shootings that also occurred at Northern Illinois University, Vicary proceeded to conduct a similar survey, with 160 students responding.
Findings of combined results from both schools revealed that 71 percent of participants suffered from significant symptoms of depression and 64 percent had significant symptoms of PTSD two weeks after the shootings.
As part of their grief expression, students participated in online memorials, sent text messages, e-mails and instant messages and posted comments on social networking sites such as Facebook.
Notably, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed had joined at least one Facebook group related to the shooting. More than 70 percent had replaced their profile pictures with a Virginia Tech or NIU memorial ribbon, and 28 percent had posted a message on a memorial website.
“It was fascinating from my point of view to see how grief and mourning plays out on the Internet and to learn that it works in a way that’s very similar to the way it would if we were doing this outside of a digital framework,” Fraley said. “People were sharing their thoughts and feelings with their friends on Facebook. They were attending virtual vigils, joining groups, doing many of the same kinds of things they would do in the non-digital world.”
While the study identified that the majority of students said their online activities helped them feel better after the shootings, other findings revealed that these activities had virtually no effect on their recovery from symptoms of depression or PTSD.
Vicary suggested that while the online activities did not contribute to significant change in overall mental health, the findings are instructive because they show that the students’ online activities were not harmful to their psychological health.
“Whenever a tragedy like this occurs, there is a debate in the news concerning students and their reliance on the Internet,” she said. “Is it harming them? Is this doing something detrimental to their well-being? And in terms of what we found with grieving behaviors after these tragedies, the answer is no.”
Findings of this study appear in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.