Social media and athletic performance


ONE of the key skills that we as sports psychologists attempt to fine-tune and master early on in our careers is that of observations. Embedding ourselves in a sporting environment and conducting athlete and team observations is a tool that we utilise as key informants to assist us in determining how best to lend sports psychological support and through what medium. It is often that through these observations, over time, we recognize emerging trends. One such trend that I have been taking note of throughout my time as a practitioner is the influence of social media on young athletes. It is a topic that has come up time and again amongst my colleagues and associates in sports.

I imagine there are a number of parents who were waiting in the wings for an article such as this to support their claims of the negative impact of social media on their adolescents…and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It should be stated that I am by no means attempting to claim a direct cause and negative effect between social media use and athletic performance but there is indeed some form of relationship…so let’s dive into what the science tells us.

Looking particularly at the ten to the 12-year-old age group we find that during this period of their development changes in the brain occur that make social rewards – such as compliments on a new hairstyle or laughter from a classmate – start to feel a lot more satisfying. More specifically, receptors for oxytocin and dopamine are also known as the “happy hormones,” multiply in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum, making preteens extra sensitive to attention and admiration from others (Abrams, 2022).

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram et al. provide an amplified version of social rewards in the forms of likes, comments, views etc. But a compliment from a peer on your new backpack for the school term is worlds apart from posting a video on Tik Tok and receiving thousands of views, likes and comments. So, what makes social media so different and potentially harmful from in-person interactions?

It largely revolves around its permanent and public nature…After you walk away from an in-person conversation you don’t know if someone liked it, or if anyone else liked it and it tends to end then and there. This is not the case for social media posts which remain in the digital world forever. Kids, their friends, and even people they’ve never met can continue to seek, deliver, or withhold social rewards in the form of likes, comments, views, and follows.

So, what does all of this have to do with athletic performance you might ask? Pre-teens and adolescents who are consistently exposed to online social rewards begin to develop addictions (of varying degrees) to the dopamine and oxytocin rushes previously mentioned, quite similar to those associated with drug and substance use. Because of these driving behaviours to chase the next rush they begin to curate “online identities,” that align with what is being socially rewarded. Ultimately trying to “stay relevant,” online or run the risk of online bullying/harassment.

These public identities are often quite polarised from the pre-teen’s personal identity causing psychological distress in determining one’s values, belief systems, body image etc and can lead to anxiety and depressive symptoms. With this lack of foundation of one’s identity it translates similarly into sport. The athlete is unable to create their athletic identity based on internal and personal motivation/beliefs (because they haven’t developed it) and instead relies heavily on social praise, achievements, and outcomes to uphold their athletic identity.

They might even create social media pages around their sporting identity to ensure those social rewards are received. Due to its unpredictability in how many likes any given post might receive this becomes a breeding ground for fear of failure, low confidence, body image issues, inconsistency in motivation, inconsistency in performance and ultimately early drop-out.

Prinstein (2022) aptly states, “for the first time in human history, we have given up autonomous control over our social relationships and interactions, and we now allow machine learning and artificial intelligence to make decisions for us. We have already seen how this has created tremendous vulnerabilities to our way of life. It’s even scarier to consider how this may be changing brain development for an entire generation of youth.”

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