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Heavy cell phone and social media use may hurt students’ grades and well-being, new studies suggests, but having friends and family at their fingertips may also be beneficial to those farthest away from home.

In papers presented at this year's annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, faculty members and graduate students from Kent State, Louisiana State and New York Universities contributed to the growing body of research into the academic and personal consequences of cell phone and social media use among undergraduate and graduate students. While part of their message -- all things in moderation -- echoed other findings, one paper suggested the opposite is true for for international students.

“The most common challenges faced by international students are psychological in nature (e.g., homesickness, loneliness, depression, stress, anxiety, alienation [and] isolation),” authors Neete Saha and Aryn C. Karpinski, a graduate student and assistant professor at Kent State, respectively, write in "The Impact of Social Media on International Students' Satisfaction With Life and Academic Performance." By studying survey results from 13 different institutions, Saha and Karpinski found international students often use social media to minimize stress from culture clash.

Almost 90 percent of the 415 international students surveyed said they were active on Facebook, and 85.4 percent said they used the voice-over-IP service Skype as the main way to contact friends and family. A majority of students said they used Skype weekly and accessed apps such as Facebook on their cell phones daily, and 86.7 percent percent of them said they believed their social media use either had no effect or a positive impact on their academic performance.

The students were even more in agreement about social media's impact on their personal lives. Only 13 percent said it had a negative effect on their well-being, compared to 78.9 percent who said it has helped them adjust to living abroad.

"Students believe that by being able to communicate with friends/family via social media, they are less stressed, depressed, or homesick, and they believe that [social networks] have neither a positive nor negative impact on their GPA,” a draft of the report reads. “[U]sing [social networks] and Skype (i.e., to communicate with friends and family more often) increases international students’ satisfaction with life abroad, and will have a positive influence on their academic performance.”

Those findings stand in contrast to a different study co-authored by Karpinski along with fellow Kent State faculty members Andrew Lepp and Jacob E. Barkley. In a broader look at technology habits of college students in general, the researchers found “high frequency cell phone users tended to have lower GPA, higher anxiety and lower satisfaction with life relative to their peers who used cell phone less often.”

That study involved 536 undergraduates enrolled in general biology, world history and other introductory-level courses at a large, public university in the Midwest. The students rated their own well-being, level of anxiety and cell phone use, and gave the institution permission to release their academic records. For the purposes of the study, cell phone use included everything but listening to music.

“Interview data collected by the authors during an earlier study ... suggest that some cell phone users may experience anxiety as a result of a perceived and perhaps overwhelming obligation to remain constantly connected to various social networks through their phone,” the report, which appeared in the February 2014 issue of Computers in Human Behavior, reads. “Occasional solitude can be an important component of well-being and an antidote to the pressures of daily life.”

In more structured settings, however, social media may help students working in groups. Peter J. McAliney, a recent doctoral student at New York University, shared results from a study of 11 students in an upper-level blended class at a public university in the Southeast. In an email, McAliney highlighted results suggesting the students didn’t set any rules for how they would use different social media platforms.

“Teams seemed to be comfortable with either working on the document together, in person, or editing their work serially,” the report reads. “As a result, it was sometimes confusing for team members to know which tool would be most appropriate for contributing to the group project or communicating with teammates. This sometimes resulted in inefficiencies within the team.”

McAliney also emphasized the personal benefits of using social media for group projects, and recommended institutions increase students’ awareness of the different platforms at their disposal.

“As organizations embrace a team approach to address an increasingly competitive global business environment, higher education must provide students the skills necessary to succeed in team-oriented business environments,” the report reads. “Better knowledge, understanding, and application of how social media technologies can support group work could enhance the ability of individuals to work collaboratively in remote teams, an increasingly important requirement in today’s workplace.”

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