How social media can add stress to the college acceptance process

The dark side of over-the-top college acceptance celebrations

Students are posting videos of themselves at the moment they learn the decisions from their favorite colleges. They’re Instagramming selfies with acceptance letters amidst carefully arranged college swag. And at least one college is delivering decisions via Instagram for maximum share-ability.

We all know social media has changed the way young people navigate the world. Now that includes the way we handle college acceptance letters. Teens and their parents are posting acceptance reveal videos. These social media unveilings can be highly choreographed affairs, with teens choosing among cupcakes decorated with the insignia of various colleges; or peeling off the t-shirt of a rejected school to reveal the school they’ve chosen; or capping off a party by opening a box filled with helium balloons in the colors of their future alma mater. Yay!

It can be great to share a personal milestone, but as with anything involving social media, there is a dark side, too.

‘When you see those videos, you want that’

Studies show that depression is rising among teens, and that increase might be linked to the use of social media. A 2017 study reported that adolescents who spent more time on social media and smartphones had a higher chance of disclosing mental health problems. And a 2016 investigation found a “significant” association between social media use and depression among young adults.

Now think about how much more depressing social media could be in the context of college application and acceptance seasons, already among the most nerve-racking, knot-in-your-stomach phases of a student’s educational life. (A survey by Seventeen magazine and the College Board reported that 70% of the high school class of 2018 “always” or “often” felt stressed about college applications, which should come as no surprise to parents.)

“It’s hard enough to manage the feeling that you might be rejected by multiple colleges,” said Dr. Rachel Hutt, licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of the group psychology practice MindWell NYC.

“What makes [social media] much more challenging is kids are experiencing this in the public eye,” Hutt continued. “It’s not just their own experiences and challenges that they have to manage but everyone else’s thoughts and reactions.”

And what if a student got into only her ninth-choice school? What if her parents couldn’t afford for her even to apply to her favorite college, much less to throw an Instagram-worthy reveal party? For these kids, in-your-face videos of students seeming to get exactly what they want from life can create a vision of the world that can never match reality.

The disconnect between reality and the world as seen on social media can lead to perverse outcomes. You might remember seeing viral videos from T.M. Landry College Prep in Louisiana, of ecstatic teenagers opening acceptance letters from Ivy League universities. One was viewed over eight million times. The videos of college acceptances drew people to the school. “When you see these videos,” one parent told The New York Times, “you want that.” Careful what you wish for: According to a troubling exposé in the Times, Landry was falsifying transcripts and allegedly abusing students.

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Returning to reality

For every child opening a yes letter from a top-tier school and collapsing in happiness and hugs, there are several others who are confronting rejection. Those moments are difficult, but they’re part of life, too, and an opportunity to grow. But your kid won’t see those more sobering moments splashed all over Facebook.

That’s why it’s key to have a sit-down with your kid in the months leading up to college acceptance season. Remind them—and yourself—that life is filled with ups and downs, even if social media tends to capture the ups. Teens should be able to “rejoice in whatever they’ve accomplished,” Hutt said, regardless of where they end up enrolling.

Let your kids know that celebrations don’t have to go viral to be meaningful. Sure, there are always going to be kids who can afford to hire an elephant, or a college mascot who jumps out of a cake. But going bowling with family and best friends, or throwing a pizza party, can be just as memorable.

Similarly, getting into your ninth-choice school might not feel as good as opening an envelope—or a DM—from the exclusive private college of your fantasies. But no matter where your kid goes, she’ll have experiences, make friends, and learn things that will change her life. And that makes for an amazing picture, even if it’s not one you can post on the ’gram.

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