Increasing numbers of athletes in Generation Z (born in the 1990s and early 2000s) are growing-up, training and performing in a world where the use of social media and mobile technology is a normalised part of social interaction. Social media in this context can be viewed as a form of communication that uses mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, co-create, and modify user-generated content. The term social media encompasses not just social networking sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp, but also video and photo sharing sites such as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Flickr; micro-blogging applications such as Twitter; aggregator sites such as Digg; and even virtual worlds.
For Generation Z, and Millennial athletes engaging with social media accounts and using mobile technology is a normal part of life, but the question for sport psychologists is do these online interactions have any impact upon athlete mental health and ultimately performance? Before answering that question, it is important to note that athletes use social media for a range of different functions including communicating with their fan base, managing their ‘brand’, and communicating news stories. One major implication of social media in these contexts is that material can be transmitted to a very wide audience without the express consent or knowledge of the athlete. This fact means that errors of judgement can have the potential to have a far greater reach than was previously the case.
Moving back to the question of mental health and performance, social media offers athletes the ability to be regularly and continuously ‘connected’ with friends, family, peers, and fans in an unparalleled way, with geography no longer presenting a realistic barrier.
Though the question remains is this connectivity almost anywhere (with mobile technology) facilitative of good performance? Anecdotal evidence from a number of Olympic coaches has suggested that social networking and real-time online interactions could act as a distraction to some athletes and can result in substandard performances. Indeed, the continual feedback and commentary that athletes receive via social media has been suggested to impact upon self-efficacy and ultimately mental state. It has also been suggested that fans, family, friends and social media trolls have a subtle power to influence athlete mental state and ultimately performance outcomes. Indeed, research conducted by Kim Encel, Chris Mesagno, and Helen Brown published in 2017 suggested that 32% of the athletes in their study reported using Facebook during competition while a further 68% accessed Facebook in the 2-hours prior to competition. The authors reported that time spent on Facebook was a predictor of measured concentration disruption. This finding suggests that unlimited access to social media around performance may negatively impact upon mental state and performance.
However, while that might be true the increasing dependency on push notifications can also be problematic. While the simple solution to reduce the impact of social media on concentration is to switch off or quarantine mobile devices, this step itself might have negative effects. There could be a fear of missing out by not having access, and a desire (even need) to stay connected with other people continually. As a result, any interventions relating to social media use around competition need to be carefully thought through.
Finally, the content of the messages athletes received via social media is also important. Positive feedback can result in positive emotional responses and increased self-efficacy. Whereas negative feedback can reduce perceptions of self-efficacy. So, it might be that communicating with some individuals (e.g., coach, peers, friends, family) might be desirable, but communicating more broadly with society (e.g., twitter and Instagram) might be less desirable while preparing for and executing performance. Whatever the answers, solutions need to be individually-focused and discussed and agreed with the athlete. Finally, far more research is needed to better understand the impact social media has on the athlete and the relationship between social media use and performance.