Project to explore student-athlete social media use

Rules regarding the way college athletes can financially benefit from their name, image and likeness changed last year - but the effects of these changes on these students’ mental health and well-being remain largely unknown. Jeff Ruser, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology, recently received funding to study this topic and learn more about how social media could benefit - or hurt - student athletes as they grapple with the new rules.

Ruser, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in counseling psychology with a Ph.D. minor in Sport and Performance Psychology, was already studying how student-athletes who played for high-profile schools faced the pressures of winning while also dealing with criticism on social media. When the NCAA started allowing these students to earn money based on their NIL last summer, Ruser and his advisor, Associate Professor Jesse Steinfeldt, found it relevant to include how NIL changes might affect social media use, as student-athletes continue to market and earn money through the use of their social media platforms.

Ruser recently received a grant for this work from the NCAA Graduate Student Research Grant Program for his project, “Exploring the emotional, psychological, and social impacts of social media use on highly visible student-athletes in the NIL-era."

Student-athletes are amazing members of college communities across the country, and although they sometimes accomplish superhuman athletic feats, they are every bit as human as you and I. They deserve to feel supported.

Jeff Ruser

“Student-athletes are amazing members of college communities across the country, and although they sometimes accomplish superhuman athletic feats, they are every bit as human as you and I,” Ruser said. “They deserve to feel supported and well, while being provided with the resources to achieve just that. That is why I am doing this research – because we all need support, we all deserve to have our circumstances and lives understood and all deserve to be treated justly.”

The study will be a qualitative investigation of the experiences of high-profile student-athletes, selected based on their above-average social media followings, and focused on how social media use has impacted their emotional, psychological and social well-being. Additionally, the research team hopes to gain insights from the selected participants to learn more about how NIL legislation changes have affected how the students interface with social media, how it may be affecting their enjoyment of social media and how it could be positively or negatively affecting users’ well-being.

Because the NIL changes are so new, there isn’t much research available on how the changes have so far affected student athletes, part of the reason this study was selected by the NCAA to receive funding.

Currently, Ruser works in a training role with IU student-athletes as part of his doctoral training. While he is not an official employee of IU Athletics, as a Doctoral Trainee he provides individual counseling services, group and team consultation and team mental performance training under the supervision of a licensed psychologist employed by IU Athletics.

“Student-athletes are so often placed on a pedestal by society, fans and on-lookers due to the enormous amounts of time and effort they expend to be great at their respective sports. While being a collegiate student-athlete is often a privilege for those who identify as such, they are also expected to shoulder the workload of competing at a level performance only topped by full-time professional athletes while still carrying full coursework loads,” Ruser said.

After decades of criticism about NIL policies, this change could be seen as a welcome one - as long as projects like Ruser’s keep the focus on the well-being of the athletes these changes ultimately affect.