By Blog editor, on 11 May 2021
Post by Verity Sutcliffe, PsychUP for Wellbeing student (historic post from Spring 2020)
Reading time: ~ 5 mins
Ever wondered what UCL students were talking about when the pandemic first hit? Verity, a final year student at UCL, discusses the results of her thematic analysis of UCLove posts from the first two weeks of the pandemic. (We didn’t want to lose this blog, which was posted on our old site in Spring 2020.)
The COVID-19 outbreak has triggered changes in the way we communicate. With lockdown regulations enforcing we stay in our homes, online communication is playing an essential role in many people’s daily lives.
Focusing on the student population specifically, some are turning to online forums to express their anxieties about the pandemic. This can be seen as an efficient way to gain insight and support from fellow students. Sharing problems online can provide an opportunity for students to communicate how they are feeling to a responsive and sympathetic listener.
One student-run outlet for discussing such anxieties has been Facebook confession pages. Created by students, these pages have gained popularity at several universities, as they have facilitated mass-scale student-to-student communication – with UCL’s UCLove amassing over 23,000 followers and 17,000 likes in the three years it has been operating.
We can all sometimes focus on specific concerns when there are deeper feelings underlying these
These pages began with a sort of ‘hive mind’ framework, where students can submit confessions and queries, to which other students can collectively respond to. With posts anonymous, yet public for followers to interact with, students from every demographic (i.e. students from all sectors of the university, and potentially other universities also) can offer advice and sympathy to their peers.
Recently, over 10% of posts have touched upon anxieties related to COVID-19: a potential source of insight into how students are feeling during this time, and how these feelings may change as the situation evolves.
As a final-year UCL student, I started my undergraduate degree around the same time UCLove was created, so I have followed its progression into the successful platform it is today. Therefore, I am interested in how it is currently being used by students to express their worries and concerns.
I extracted posts on the UCLove page during the two weeks straddling the day a pandemic was declared by WHO (4-18 March), and thematically analysed them (see text box for how).
During this fortnight, COVID-19-related posts quadrupled. I identified six main themes in the posts which outline the explicit content of the anxieties that were raised (e.g. travel). However, there are also potential latent meanings that can be explored (e.g. a feeling of powerlessness).
This distinction between literal and interpretive analysis is important: we can all sometimes focus on specific concerns when there are deeper feelings underlying these, which we may not even be aware of.
If we are going to understand the impact of COVID-19 on people, this distinction could also be relevant for seeing how people’s concerns change. We might expect at least some explicit concerns to change as the situation does, but some of the deeper concerns might be more intractable.
For example, one theme draws upon the decisions being made by UCL regarding the academic year. One student writes, ‘Anyone else really nervous about online exams?? I find it so much harder to concentrate at home compared to in an actual exam hall, and I hate doing my exams from a screen rather than paper’.
This references an explicit concern towards the choice to move assessments to online platforms. It may also reflect an implicit fear about how changes to assessment affects the student’s grades, which will impact on their future.
The six explicit themes identified from the UCLove corpus data, with the % of posts that referenced each theme
Another identified theme is the anxiety towards daily-life changes. One student reports, “everything is changing for the way in which we lead our lives. It’s scary, difficult to concentrate…on work. There are so many unknowns…”.
This references nervousness towards the lifestyle adaptations that were being introduced around this time. These may include the UK-wide social distancing and self-isolating guidelines, as well as more university-specific regulations such as the closure of libraries and cancellations of face-to-face lectures.
This could imply the student is concerned about the unpredictability and longevity of the virus. These are new adjustments we have learned to adhere to, and the uncertainty of how long for may instil a sense of unease. This unease may manifest into latent anxieties that persist throughout the outbreak’s duration.
This preliminary look into UCLove and its content suggests that students benefit from the model that confession pages offer. Perhaps the relationship between the anonymous-poster and public-commenter gives it its unique appeal. The identifiableness of the commenters is what gives their responses a more genuine and sympathetic feel, while the anonymity of the original poster allows for the discussion of personal problems without compromising their identity.
Without such pages, there would be less of a cohesive safe space for students to come together to support one another. These confession pages are a useful tool for students to discuss their issues openly to an engaging and approachable audience – who offered responses such as “I agree 100%” and “so relatable…stay safe” to the previously mentioned posts, respectively.