Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health of college students has suffered. According to the American Psychological Association, over 60% of college students met the criteria for one mental health problem between 2020 and 2021. This increase in mental health issues has coincided with an increase in media consumption.
A study conducted by Vividata took a detailed look at the increase in media consumption by college students. Sixty percent of respondents reported that their media consumption levels rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 60% increase in social media usage, 40% increase in audio/music usage and a 41% increase in video usage.
So, we at The Statesman wanted to take a look at how this increase in music and media consumption could possibly be linked to the mental health issues currently facing college students today. In order to do so, we put out a Google Form survey to students at Stony Brook University asking them about their mental health during the academic year, as well as their music and media consumption. Our results are detailed below.
Before getting into music and media consumption, we wanted to take a look at the mental health of Stony Brook’s students. Speaking on their overall mental health, 48.9% of respondents reported their mental health declined during the 2022-2023 academic year, while 35.6% stated that it improved and 15.6% believed that their mental health remained the same as the previous academic year.
Mental health resources (either on or off campus) were utilized by 35.6% of our respondents, while 64.6% did not receive some sort of mental health help.
On the topic of academic workloads and burnout, we saw massively skewed results from our survey. A resounding 84.4% of respondents stated that they have suffered from academic burnout this academic year. Academic burnout is defined as “occurring when you face chronic stress over an extended period of time, manifesting in apathy, fatigue, detachment, and lack of interest in academics.”
This percentage falls steadily in line with the 80% who reported feeling “overwhelming stress” in The National College Health Assessment. This wasn’t much of a shock, given that the previous question, asking students to rate their workload on a scale of one to five (with five being the heaviest workload), resulted in 97.8% of respondents having a workload of three or higher.
We concluded our mental health section by asking our students if they believed Stony Brook did a good job in supporting students’ mental health. A resounding 71.4% reported that Stony Brook did not.
It didn’t take much observation of our results to see the impact music has on our respondents. Music seemed to be the easiest choice of media for students to put on when they are in a stressed or anxious state. 86.4% of students said that listening to music improves their mental state.
A whopping 75.4% of our respondents listen to six or more hours of music per week. Our top genres were pop (71.1%), rock (66.7%), alternative (66.2%) and indie (51.1%). We also saw a plethora of other genres, including Broadway, lo-fi, R&B, rap, K-pop, classical and instrumental. Our most listened-to artists included The Beatles; Taylor Swift; The 1975; Hozier; Doja Cat; Harry Styles; SZA; Tyler, the Creator; and Phoebe Bridgers.
Some of the key words we saw in the explanations of why people enjoy these artists and this music included “emotional,” “motivating,” “upbeat,” “comforting” and “calming.” Many respondents also said they looked for music with a “deeper meaning” or a social commentary/connection behind it. Another key word we saw was “nostalgia” — students looking to listen to an artist, genre or song that evoked familiarity in order to evoke feelings of calmness or serenity.
When talking about what impacts their choice of music, answers varied based on everyday tasks and occasions. Some said they listen to music most when they’re at the gym or going for a run. Others spoke of having music to calm them down or evoke a relaxing feeling before bed. A large number of respondents spoke of the importance of having music to listen to while studying — showing how school can never truly leave our subconscious.
Unsurprisingly, 65.9% of our respondents spend six or more hours per week streaming content, which was defined as consuming media from platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and Disney+. Streaming sites and services appeared to be more popular amongst respondents than social media, as only 47.7% of respondents reported spending six or more hours per week on social media.
When asked to list the television shows they are currently watching, many respondents resorted to the same nostalgia that was evoked in their music choices. Popular shows amongst respondents included sitcoms like “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” as well as reality shows like “Dance Moms,” which were cited as being “comforting” to watch. Many respondents said they are rewatching shows, further illustrating the desire for comfort in media, as students are choosing to watch shows that are familiar and repetitive.
“I have long used TV as a coping mechanism, I’ve watched some series as many as 10+ times and I’ll still rewatch them [because] the repetitiveness and knowing how things will end relieves my anxiety,” one respondent said.
Some respondents noted that watching television is a “distraction” from the daily grind, which also corresponded to the television programs they chose. While none offered specific titles, many respondents listed anime as their current television consumption genre — other animated content like “Family Guy” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” also frequented participants’ screens. Such content offers participants a fictitious escape from reality, with one participant noting that “hilarious writing and nostalgic connection” provides an escape.
The tendency towards more fictional content continued with the frequent mention of “The Last of Us,” HBO’s timely post-outbreak drama series. While it may be in part due to its recency, the show’s popularity amongst respondents further showcased the preference by participants to sink into another world.
For many respondents, watching television is only one part of their daily equation; participants frequently mentioned watching shows that they consider “mindless” and that can be put on in the background while they complete other tasks, such as schoolwork. This media multitasking mirrors the increase in college students’ study time over the last decade, as observed by the 2020 National Survey of Student Engagement.
While television may have offered participants some reprieve from their daily stressors, various respondents shared the view that social media only exacerbates it. When it comes to social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, more than half (53%) of respondents stated that spending time on social media worsens their mood and mental state.
Not only is social media an agent of upset for respondents, but it is also their outlet of choice when they’re already in a negative mood. Nearly half of respondents said that being on social media worsens their mood and mental state, with only 28% noting that they spend less time on social media when upset.
Overall, respondents showcased that media is an important tool for college students struggling to fight stress and academic burnout in their daily lives. Students are turning to more professionally-produced content such as television and music as a more positive form of stress relief compared to content created by the general public on social media and video-streaming applications like TikTok.
Compared to other forms of media consumption, such as social media and streaming, music and television offer students more of an escape from their daily lives and provide them the comfort and nostalgia they so desperately crave.