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Social Media as Medication
ORLANDO -- There was one self-labeled millennial here for a robust discussion on how technology and social media are changing the way college students think and communicate -- or, at least, one who was brave enough to speak up.
For the better part of an hour, student affairs officials had lamented how students' excessive use of Facebook and text messaging makes them more anxious, limits their maturation and hinders their in-person communication abilities.
"Is it so much that technology and our cell phones are creating difficulties with our communication," this student asked, openly acknowledging he was on Twitter as he spoke (despite the fact that the presenters asked everyone to put away their phones at the start of the discussion), "or is it that communication is changing, that there is a paradigm shift going on, and maybe instead that we need to shift with the paradigm to meet the new means of communication?"
The professors at the head of the room, presenting a new study here at the annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, quickly countered that that wasn't the point.
"Instead of just rationalizing what you're doing," said Victor Greto, an associate professor of media arts at Wesley College, consider: "Is it really harming you on some basic psychological level that you haven't even thought about?"
Findings from Greto's study suggest that it is. Along with Angela D'Antonio, an associate professor of psychology at Wesley, Greto surveyed the media use of 210 Wesley students with a 27-item questionnaire. Twenty-two of those students then filled out a weeklong media use diary -- one entry every 30 minutes -- and half of those students were interviewed for an hour each to discuss how they felt about their use of cell phones and technology.
The goal was to gauge actual use and three psychological effects: emotional intelligence (how emotion is used, awareness of others' emotion), ego control (ability to delay gratification and control impulses), and ego resiliency (how well a person can be flexible and adapt to new situations).
Not that shocking, D'Antonio said, was the finding that students who struggled most with ego control used social media the most. But this was even more true for women: even though across the board, they didn't use technology any more than men did, those who had the worst impulse control engaged in significantly more media use of all kinds. (For all students, use of social media was consistent throughout the day, from wake-up until bedtime -- including, of course, during class.)
D'Antonio suggested that those women are using social media to meet their greater need, as suggested by research, to be socially connected in their relationships.
"In and of itself, that's not bad," D'Antonio said, "but are they overusing it, and are they increasing their anxiety?"
Judging by some of the interviews, they very well could be. Many spoke about panicking when their phones aren't within reach (while also saying they "wish" they could unplug, and go back to a time before Facebook).
"It's like literally a piece of me is missing, like if I didn't wear shoes today."
"I feel funny without it because if I have to leave the phone and miss five text messages, I feel guilty about not getting to it right away."
"My life is my phone."
"If it's an important person, I'll answer it on the toilet."
That last one drew laughs from the crowd, but the presenters worried about the psychological implications of this -- is it healthy for a student to get angry and anxious when someone hasn't texted them back within a few minutes? -- and the possibility that the people in the room were actually enabling this behavior.
Greto suggested that faculty members are lowering standards, requiring less concentrated reading (this has been supported by research) and giving students information in short bites (or bytes).
One audience member pointed out that they'd be asking students to use technology less for their personal lives while simultaneously asking them to use it more to engage in campus life, through Facebook groups, campus apps, Q codes and the like. "As administrators of college campuses," he said, "are we enforcing a dichotomy that can't be enforced?"
Others noted the apparent hypocrisy of administrators in the room. Just look at the ridiculously long Starbucks line during every session break, one woman said: everyone's tweeting, at NASPA's encouragement, but nobody's talking. Online networking is good, she said, but at a conference full of professionals in the field, isn't face-to-face networking better?
Building on that idea, one administrator said they have to set an example.
"If we are doing the exact same thing we don't want our students to do right in front of them, how can we expect them to do anything else?" he said. "If we actually expect them to change, we have to be leading, and that first step is modeling."
NASPA attendees also spent a fair amount of time discussing another enabler of students: their parents. Many spoke of students who text their parents a dozen times a day, and rely on them to solve all their roommate and academic problems.
Greto tells students in his classes to put their phones away or get kicked out, and for the most part, they oblige. An attendee from a Jesuit institution said her students started a Sabbath week, where they try to refrain from social media.
"Half this problem may just be awareness, and these kids just aren't aware of what's happening to them," Greto said. "Some of us aren't even aware about what's happened to us."
While writing this article over lunch at Orlando International Airport, this reporter could not help but notice the occupants at the next table: a college-aged woman and an older female companion. The younger traveler began a lengthy phone call immediately after ordering, and the other woman proceeded to take out her cell. Neither put her phone away for the remainder of the meal.
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