Building social connection without the pitfalls of social media

Institutions should prioritize opportunities to help students develop healthy social connections and foster meaningful relationships with other students


Key points:

Butler University identified the need to support greater student connection and engagement as a strategic priority. On the heels of the U.S. Surgeon General’s “We Are Made To Connect” tour, which underscored the importance of student-to-student connection, you may be having the same discussions on your campus.

Butler University is recognized by US News and World Report as the #1 university in the Midwest, and #1 in our region for innovation and undergraduate teaching. Butler is ranked #16 nationally for its first-year experience. Our focus on this important work improving student connection was motivated by our recent partnership with The Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education’s Foundations of Excellence program. This was a campus-wide collaboration led by Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and Enrollment Management to study all aspects of the first year of college and then to produce a comprehensive plan leading to higher levels of student success and retention.

We found that first-year students’ overall satisfaction with Butler is high and the supportive campus environment is a strength; however, students identified their ability to form connections with other students as a distinct area of opportunity for the university. Additionally, through this process we identified the need to improve communications with first-year students and their families as a priority.

We began by considering why this need even exists in the age of social media, and how our approach should be different. Students today have grown up in the age of “social,” where you can “connect” with anyone from any place at any time. Many colleges and universities use social media platforms to engage and connect students, but all too often these efforts have not yielded the desired results. Why?

Too many social media platforms today prioritize engagement with the platform rather than with the people on the platform. Additionally, students’ constant exposure in social media to curated, idealized versions of other students’ “stories” can amplify feelings of inadequacy and lead to a distorted sense of reality – all while exacerbating the Imposter Syndrome felt by so many students today.

Still, social connection is essential to the long-term success of college students, especially as they enroll and experience their first semester on campus. Even with robust orientation and student affairs programming, colleges and universities can miss important opportunities to ensure students develop healthy social connections and foster meaningful relationships with other students who share their interests and backgrounds.

We sought an approach that encouraged authentic student engagement and relationship-building among new students, felt inviting even for our introverted students, and would help us connect more students to our support programs.

As a result, Butler’s Division of Student Affairs decided to partner with Nearpeer as a way to support our efforts to improve connectedness and communication among first-year students. We started with our new students entering in fall 2023, and for 2024. our Enrollment Management colleagues are also working with the platform to assist in our strategic recruitment efforts so that we may strengthen engagement even earlier in the student journey.

Nearpeer is a peer engagement platform that encourages authentic connectivity among students based on shared interests, lived experiences, and other elements that one does not easily find on social media. Additionally, platforms like Nearpeer support student well-being and emphasizes healthy behavior. Recent studies show that this intentional peer-to-peer approach has a significant positive impact on the enrollment and retention of students.

New students have embraced Butler University’s new approach. The initial results have been extremely encouraging. Over 60 percent of new Fall 2023 Butler students have voluntarily signed up for and used Nearpeer to connect with their peers with whom they share specific interests, affinities, majors, and more. Of these students, 87 percent reported that Nearpeer helped them to present a more genuine version of themself to their classmates, based on Butler’s new student orientation survey administered during their first semester. Moreover, 39 percent of students overall – and 44 percent of first-gen students – who indicated having social anxiety about starting school at Butler University, reported that the program helped them feel less anxious.

We have experienced this positive change first-hand in how students engaged with each other at the start of the Fall term. In fact, our team members responsible for new student onboarding are re-envisioning our “getting to know you” type of orientation activities because so many students already knew each other through Nearpeer before they set foot on campus.

The results we are seeing with Nearpeer are quite different from the negative outcomes arising from social media use, as reported by the U.S. Surgeon General. Nearpeer has proven to be a safe, positive, and healthy environment.

Peer-to-peer technologies provide students the opportunity to be themselves without having to impress their entire social network. Helping students connect based on what they share in common is not just about the most popular things. In fact, it’s often the less common affinities that have the greatest power to bring two students together, such as crocheting, cricket, or cryptography. These friendships become a support network to navigate the challenges and unknowns of the first year, which provides the necessary comfort and encouragement to persist.

If colleges and universities want to foster well-being and belonging and advance student success, there is great value in considering technology solutions that help to scale the efforts that only humans can do – create authenticinclusive communities.

Peer-to-peer platforms work in tandem with staff and faculty to elevate opportunities for creating student connections. These platforms allow you to effectively and efficiently scale to reach ALL students, freeing up busy, hard-working campus professionals to spend more time on other programs and student-facing initiatives.

No longer do institutions of higher education have to look to social media to reach students or wait until ice breakers during new student orientation for students to start building high-quality relationships. The strategic use of peer-to-peer platforms leads to meaningful social connections that positively impact enrollment, greatly foster students’ sense of belonging, and enhance student success throughout the first year and beyond.


Frank E. Ross III, PhD, Vice President for Student Affairs, Butler University

Dr. Ross is the Vice President for Student Affairs at Butler University. LinkedIn: @FrankERossPhD. Instagram: @ButlerVPSA.