How does Social Media affect the modern athlete?

This is a hot topic is today’s modern environment, and many sportsmen and women, who are role models, are affected by this in a deeper manner than we realise.

I am going to be looking into research that has been conducted into this topic, and also touching on gaming, as it is linked to this topic.

I will be mentioning research and articles by:

  • Tracy Markle, MA, LPC & Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.
  • Gentile and Young
  • The NCAA
  • Marnus Barnard (LLb)
  • Sarah Daren
  • David Petroff

I first started looking into this topic when I watched an interview with South African Cricketer Aiden Markram. Aiden Markram was an SA u19 captain and winner of the 2014 ICC u19 Cricket World Cup with the team he captained. He was destined for great things. By 2022, he had still not lived up to his potential, despite showing glimpses. Suddenly in 2023 he started producing some amazing batting innings and looked to be realising his obvious potential. In this interview he mentioned that he had closed down all his social media accounts and was no longer distracted by the comments associated with them.

So how much can social media influence a sportsperson? Either positively or negatively?

Let’s begin with why sportspeople should be on social media.

Firstly, they are role models, and they are ambassadors. This is their career, and they need to promote themselves. Social media is a very effective way to do this, as you can get your “brand” out to a vast audience. It can help players endorse their team and products. It can help them gain coverage and through that recognition and improved sponsorships and endorsements. It can also aid their agents in finding them better contracts as they can use social media to become a “household name”.

Fans also enjoy interacting with players, and Social media does allow this. It can also provide the fans with an authentic and real perspective of their hero’s, not just what the media portrays. The player can have a hand in creating or portraying their image in a positive fashion, if they manage their social media well.

However, there is a flip side to this. Social media is not necessarily controllable. Fans can be fickle and harsh. There is also the danger of creating offense with a comment or “like” of a controversial topic.

“Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences.”

When you put something out on social media or the internet, its there forever. Here are some examples:

In the case of Voula Papachristou, the Greek triple jump champion who was expelled from the 2012 London Olympics due to this incredibly callous tweet that drew a comparison between disease and her African co-olympians: “with so many Africans in Greece, at least the West Nile mosquitoes will be eating food from their own home.” She was mocking African migrants and expressing support for a far-right wing political party, which caused her to be expelled even before the start of the games. She apologised but the damage remained.

Another example was that of the former English cricketer, Kevin Pietersen text message dispute, where the power of social media played a hugely destructive role. Pietersen was suspended in the summer of 2012 for the Third Test against South Africa after it emerged that he had been sending messages to the South African players. He apologised but, once again, the damages remained and could not be undone.

In another text dispute, Damian De Allende, a Springbok Centre apologised after hitting out at a rugby fan that criticised his performance against Argentina. Twitter was abuzz after the Springboks lost 26-24 to Los Pumas in Salta back in 2016. A rugby fan hit out at the Springboks’ performance and singled out De Allende and Johan Goosen, tweeting: “I’ve reflected upon that terrible 80 min. I blame our defense. Leaving 14 points on the field did not help either. @Springboks” and “Also passing would not kill us. Our Wings are currently spectators. *cough* @Doogz *cough* @Goose10Johan *cough*”. An upset De Allende then responded, tweeting: “Cough some more while you sit on your couch and enjoy your life doing nothing.” De Allende later deleted the tweet and apologised. This possible text dispute was luckily mitigated.

Kaizer Chiefs’ management also reportedly requested Itumeleng Khune (it is unknown when), their goalkeeper and South African soccer player, to slow down on either posting or replying to his fans on social media platforms. Khune, a regular on Twitter and Instagram, then proceeded to slow down on postings. It has been said that his consistent postings on social media platforms influenced his game, hence this was apparently done in an attempt so that Khune could re-focus on his game.

On this topic of performance, Social media can have a huge influence, Let’s look at some research:

  • 4.48 billion active social media users, people spend an average of 2–3 hours of their time on social media per day (5 hours of an average lifespan)
  • over 210 million people confessed that they are affected by social media addiction.
  • platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products
  • the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites causes the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction seen with drugs like cocaine.

In research by Markle and Kennedy we can see that a core set of mental diagnoses are found to coexist with digital media overuse and addiction. These include

  1. Depression
  2. Anxiety
  3. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

The use of digital media, like video games, mobile apps, or websites, occurs on a spectrum. Healthy digital media use is on one end of the spectrum and addictive digital media use is on the other. In the middle is digital media overuse (DMO) and that’s where the majority of users fall.

Most internet users fall in the digital media overuse category.

Digital media addiction, also called internet addiction or online addiction, is an umbrella term that can refer to an addiction to online video games, social media, online spending, surfing the internet (known as information overload), or online pornography. Only a small percentage of the overall population meets criteria for online addiction, but the most vulnerable group are college students followed by teenagers.

When it comes to depression as a symptom, athletes must deal with

  • Familial Pressure
  • Self-Imposed Pressure
  • Recruitment Pressure
  • Performance/Athletic Pressure
  • Academic Pressure
  • Sleep Deprivation

Many coaches believe that the use of phones by their players has a negative impact on their performance:

  1. A 2018 study of varsity athletes at two Canadian universities found that participants used their phones for an average of 32 hours per week. According to the study’s authors, athletes’ most used applications were social media which exceeded the use of any other application by 7 hours on average. Many athletes in the study reported anxiety, both when their phones are with them, and when they are separated from their phones.
  2. A study conducted the same year with 199 athletes at Northern Michigan University found that the average number of hours the athletes spent on their smartphones each day was 5.2. And that the younger the student athlete, the more likely they were to stay up later on their phone. When ranking what their smartphones were used for, the student athletes ranked social media first, texting or messaging second, phone calls third, emailing fourth
  3. Another study in 2016 of 298 adult athletes of varying levels from 13 countries and 30 different sports found that 31.9% used Facebook during a game or competition and 68.1% used Facebook within 2 hours before a game or competition. Researchers note that the athletes’ Facebook use after competition mirrored their Facebook use prior to competition with nearly three-quarters (71.9%; n = 214) of athletes accessing Facebook within 2 hours of the competition finishing.
  4. a study examining the perceptions of 12 highly experienced US Tennis Association Player Development coaches and sport providers working with junior elite players reported that several coaches saw the Gen Z (defined in this study as athletes born after 1996) preoccupation with cell phone usage and social media as a major barrier to effectively coaching this generation. “These coaches saw cell phone usage as distracting, disengaging, and a time-wasting habit that took their focus away from their tennis development,”. Additionally, coaches in this study overwhelmingly characterized their Gen Z athletes with having difficulty paying attention and focusing over long periods. They also cited listening as a challenge for Gen Z athletes in their training. And they believed that players had difficulty expressing their emotions, were shy and hesitant to speak up, and lacked basic conversational skills (i.e., eye contact). They also perceived Gen Z athletes as preferring impersonal communication methods such as texting rather than face-to-face conversations or phone calls. And they believed that Gen Z athletes were more open via text.
  5. A review of NBA game statistics between 2009 and 2016 for 112 verified Twitter-using NBA players found that those who engaged in posting on Twitter or “tweeting” late at night scored fewer points and achieved fewer rebounds during their games the next day
  6. Facebook use within 2 hours prior to competition was significantly and positively correlated with the concentration disruption component of sport anxiety. “The length of time before a sport competition that Facebook was accessed was related to concentration disruption reported, with the closer to the beginning of the competition an athlete accessed Facebook, the more concentration disruption they may experience,”. Having push notifications enabled on athletes’ phones predicted 4.4% of the variability in sport anxiety.
  7. A study published in 2019 of 20 professional male soccer players found that 30 minutes or more of using WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram on a smartphone caused mental fatigue and impaired passing decision-making
  8. A 2020 study of 25 professional male soccer players identified a group effect of impairment on passing decision-making performance when players either used a social networking smartphone app for 30 minutes or played a video game for 30 minutes
  9. A 2021 study of 21 elite amateur boxers (eight female and 13 male; 7 amateurs of national level and 13 amateurs of regional level; with a standard mean age of 23.33 ± 3.46 years), found that both attack and defense decision-making performance were impaired after subjects used social media applications on a smartphone for 30 minutes and after they played video games for 30 minutes.

These study findings are alarming and should be of concern to both coaches and players.

So how does social media and it’s potential addiction affect a players performance. Let’s consider some factors:

  1. Late night distraction instead of solid sleep, rest and recovery
  2. Anxiety related to social media commenting related to an athlete’s performance, conduct and general life activities
  3. Mental fatigue as a result of a disrupted focus, before, during and after competition

Finally, what about gaming and Sports Performance?

It’s a rising problem, and generally thought to be under-reported amongst players.

NBA players routinely refer to themselves as being “hooked” or “addicted” to games. While sports psychologists and industry insiders report that sports organizations are reaching out for professional help to manage their players’ gaming behind the scenes.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is now reportedly asking all potential recruits whether they’re addicted to Fortnite. Multiple Major League Baseball teams, as well as Vancouver’s NHL team, have also created rules around gaming in an attempt to keep their players focused on the task at hand.

One sports psychologist who works with professional soccer clubs in the UK told Reuters that gaming disorder is soccer’s hidden “epidemic”. Adding that the number of soccer players seeking treatment from him for gaming addiction tripled after COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

This is just another form of distraction for a sportsperson who wishes to succeed at the highest level.

The internet, social media, online gaming are all a part of our modern culture. The athlete needs to learn how to cope with these distractions. They may need to adopt a complete restriction approach, as did Aiden Markram, or them may just need to learn the self-control required to manage these aspects of their life. Neither is easy as our modern life requires these online connections, especially in the wake of Covid and lockdowns.

So, what is the answer?

Research highlights the dangers. Its really up to coaches and players approaching the topic head-on and realising that it has the potential to impact a players performance. With that in place, players will receive the guidance they require, and if they do show symptoms of addiction, they help they require to cope.

Coaches, its up to you to educate, empower and aid your players.