Date of Award

12-14-2021

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Dr. Cynthia A. Hoffner

Second Advisor

Dr. Holley Wilkin

Third Advisor

Dr. Carrie P. Freeman

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth Tighe

Abstract

College students’ mental health has been a growing public health concern, as they have been reporting very low levels of emotional well-being. Drawing from social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986) and the modified labeling theory (Link et al., 1989), this study sought to examine the role of life stressors, emotional well-being, self-efficacy of help-seeking, outcome expectations, and stigma in college students’ social media-based support seeking. Undergraduate students were recruited from communication classes at Georgia State University to complete an online, self-administered survey. The final sample size was 940. Respondents reported seeing other people seek social media-based support for mental health more frequently than they reported they do so themselves. Instagram was the platform they reported using the most for mental health support. Furthermore, they reported greater expected positive outcomes than expected negative outcomes of seeking social media-based support. As predicted, life stressors (including COVID-19 related stressors), self-efficacy, and expected positive outcomes were all positive predictors of social media-based support seeking, whereas emotional well-being was a negative predictor. Unexpectedly, perceived public stigma did not predict social support seeking, and self-stigma was a positive predictor. A mediation analysis found that emotional well-being mediated the effect of life stressors on social media-based support seeking. A moderation analysis found that emotional well-being was more strongly associated with social support seeking when expected negative outcomes were lower. However, there was no evidence for the moderating roles of self-efficacy, perceived public stigma, or self-stigma. The results show that social cognitive theory is a useful theoretical framework for understanding social media-based support seeking. Specifically, the study adds evidence to health communication literature that self-efficacy and more positive and less negative outcome expectations promote social media-based support seeking. However, stigma does not appear to function as a barrier to support seeking in the context of social media. This still suggests usefulness of labeling theory, as mental health support might be sought on social media in ways that avoid stigmatizing labels. Findings suggest that practitioners designing social media-based support interventions should use strategies/tools that increase self-efficacy of help-seeking, facilitate positive feedback, and disable features allowing dislikes or offensive feedback.

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