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Social Media Education for College Athletes – Is It Working?

March 17, 2014 Kevin DeShazo Social Media Education Tags: , , 0 Comments

This weekend the 2014 Summit for International Association for Communication and Sport took place in New York. It was a fantastic event with an incredible amount of research presented, from social media and image rehabilitation, media coverage of scandals, sports media in the digital age and more. One paper discussed was the research of professors Jimmy Sanderson (Clemson) and Blair Browning (Baylor). Sanderson and Browning examined how college athletes perceive social media training.

It’s worth discussing some of the highlights of their presentation:

Exploring College Athletes’ Perception of Social Media Training

Is social media education working for student-athletes? Sanderson and Browning interviewed 20 athletes at a Division I-A institution, getting their answers to three questions:

  • What social media platforms do college athletes report using?
  • What messages do college athletes receive during social media training?
  • What are college athletes’ attitudes toward social media training?

In regards to which platforms college athletes report using, we’ll refer to the results of our study as it is consistent with this report, and includes a larger number of participants across a variety of programs.

When it comes to what messages student-athletes are receiving during social media training, Sanderson and Browning found three categories: compliance-driven, admonition and ambiguity.

We’ve discussed the compliance approach before, where it tends to be more about what not to do. From Sanderson and Browning:

Compliance personnel often have a “do/don’t” relationship with college athletes, and as such, educational messages grounded in that dichotomy may prove ineffective at best, and promote active resistance at worst.

This is something we’ve encountered with many student-athletes. They’ve been told what not to do, but that doesn’t help them to use social media well. They can avoid profanity and references to drugs and alcohol, but that doesn’t mean they understand how to build a positive, valuable reputation online.

Admonition, as mentioned by Sanderson and Browning, is also something we see often, with coaches warning their players on a weekly or monthly basis. “He’ll call us out if we put something out there that he thinks isn’t necessary.” Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t go far enough. Part of the reason we do a training session with coaches and staff when we visit an athletic department is to help them take this a step further. Coaches and staff have to be equipped to help their players use social media well, to have meaningful conversations about the topic. They have to know what behaviors to look for and encourage, not just discipline.

Ambiguity might be one of the most important issues pointed out by Sanderson and Browning. It’s common for a coach/staff member, and sometimes even an outside educator that doesn’t truly understand social media or their audience, to simply tell a student-athlete to, “not be stupid.” Sanderson and Browning continue:

One respondent said, “I mean we haven’t been told anything much except ‘don’t be stupid.’” When asked if examples were provided of what constituted “stupid” the respondent simply said, “They trust everybody to know what is stupid and what isn’t.” Whereas it may be sufficient to tell some athletes to not put anything “stupid” on their social media accounts, it seems likely that what is considered “stupid” is perceived differently by athletes than by administrators (author). It also is probable that not all college athletes think of “stupid” or “inappropriate” in the same way. Considering the diversity of background and experiences these athletes bring to the table, it would seem more beneficial for messages to be specific and concrete when discussing problematic content, giving athletes clear guidelines and expectations for social media content.

We’ve discussed the notion of defining what inappropriate means for student-athletes on social media. You must get specific. You must show examples and explain why those examples actually are inappropriate – the “why” isn’t always as obvious as we think.

When it comes to compliance-driven, admonishing, ambiguous social media training, how are student-athletes responding? According to Sanderson and Browning, these approaches seemed “to have little effect” on the student-athletes in the study.

Their suggestion? “Focusing education on positive social media uses and how these channels can benefit athletes, rather than harping on negative outcomes, may elicit more resonance with athletes.”

This, of course, is the reason Fieldhouse Media was started. Social Media had been made out to be the bad guy, and the messages pushed to student-athletes were overwhelmingly negative and ineffective.

Social Media is a powerful and valuable thing, but student-athletes have to be shown how to use it well, why that matters and the good that can come from creating a positive online identity. That’s when you get real, tangible results.

One notable takeaway is that, “while participants expressed a desire for social media education, they indicated that most messages they receive about social media tend to be forgettable.” Student-Athletes want help with social media. They realize the importance of it, but we have to take the right approach with education. Whether you take care of it in-house or you use an outside speaker, that person must not only use social media and understand a variety of platforms, but must approach social media education for student-athletes with a positive, realistic perspective. They must be committed to helping student-athletes use social media in a valuable, positive way rather than standing up and just scaring them with risks of using social media poorly.

Student-Athletes want a new approach. They are tired of the message they’ve been receiving. They want to use social media well, to build a positive online identity. They want to know how it will help them land a job. We have to be intentional in showing them how.

Fieldhouse Media is an award-winning firm dedicated to helping athletic departments get the most out of their social media efforts, from educating student-athletes and staff to providing an overall strategy. To find out more about us or to join the over 50 schools utilizing our services for their athletic department, contact us today.

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