When Social Media Turns Anti-Social

anti-social bruce la brack may 2019 social media May 15, 2019

What happens when Social Media turns anti-social?

The Social Media Explosion: Unintended Consequences for Study Abroad?

by Bruce La Brack

Study abroad is a dynamic and shifting process that is influenced by both external pressures as well as personal factors. Sometimes it is driven by surrounding circumstances (e.g., health and safety issues, overseas political instability), and at other times it is driven by concerns about curricular integration (e.g., engineering/STEM courses & labs) and professional credentialing. Often overlooked is the impact of technological innovation (smart phones, tablets, personal computers) on the study abroad experience.

The use of social media as part of the study-abroad landscape emerged, and vastly expanded, in little over a decade. Perhaps foremost is the rise and proliferation of the use of social media to communicate about the study abroad experience before, during, and after going overseas. While there are few detailed studies of the impact of such technology on the study abroad process, those that do exist seem pretty evenly divided about whether having such digital tools is generally a positive or negative influence. 

Every study abroad professional is aware of circumstances where the use of social media by students abroad went seriously wrong. For example, a student was living with a Spanish home-stay family when a relatively common problem arose in the household. The student immediately posted a complaint to his Facebook account. Eventually, it was read by (among others) the overseas program director, the home university study abroad office staff, the home stay family, other international students in the program and, eventually, even the student’s parents. Although the issue was eventually resolved, it was greatly exacerbated by the careless use of social media. The complaint was relatively minor, but fixing it was seriously complicated by the public involvement of so many stakeholders.

The impact of these technologies, like many emerging and novel communication channels, can simultaneously be disruptive and essential to communication! One author characterizes the debate as a tension between the concern that such tools are either destroying or enhancing the study abroad experience. Another author notes, we are “dealing with technologies that have developed faster than our ability to normalize them.” 

The swiftness and scope with which this transformation occurred is most amazing. From its humble beginnings in a European laboratory setting (CERN, Switzerland) in the late 1990s, the World Wide Web now links nearly the entire globe. It is so pervasive that it is no longer seems remarkable --just a useful everyday utility.

The revolutionary first-generation iPhone made its debut on January 9, 2007, selling 216,000+ in the initial fiscal year. Currently, almost 70% of all US households (257+ million) have at least one smartphone. It is a rare student abroad who does not carry a smart phone or tablet with them. 

While the ease of connection was appreciated from the beginning, it was also recognized as problematic: each advance in technology increased the danger of losing touch with local communities and cultures. Some were initially concerned that their phone might become an electronic leash; others were delighted to be able to maintain connections anywhere at low or no-cost.

With the release of Skype in August 2003 the age of free, face-to-face computer conversations began. Suddenly, communication by voice and text was available 24-7. Today, communication choices are almost limitless, from email to the massive variety of “apps” available Plus phone “apps” can facilitate logistics from booking a flight, to storing electronic boarding passes, finding walking or driving maps, or loading a translation program or language/dictionary. 

In addition, most smart phones not only take crisp photos and are able to instantly send them to others, but have the capacity to create and edit videos, and stream presentations. This contrasts with earlier eras when study abroad participants took pictures with a dedicated camera and film, and had to get photos printed before sharing them.

It may seem quaint to Millennials who take electronic communication for granted, but the question remains, to what extent does all this “instant sharing” detract from the experience itself? Some faculty worry that students will be so focused on documenting their experience that they become more observers than participants, raising a parallel concern about what is left to discuss with one’s friends and relatives upon return home. To what extent does all this “personal curating” detract from actually interacting with locals and facilitating mutual understanding?

Some program directors now routinely caution students .that they might need to cut back on any social media activity that reduces their opportunity or availability for cultural immersion, which is supposedly why they choose to go abroad in the first place. No matter what, study abroad students are going to use social media. However, based on professional knowledge and experience, study- abroad advisors are in a position to make suggestions about how students, faculty, and staff can best use social media to maximize the benefit of their interaction and immersion opportunities within the new culture. It seems most productive for faculty to work with students to assure that their time online expands their networks and supports opportunities for intercultural communication.

So, is social media a force that impedes immersion or a tool to connect students to other new communities? Brice Patterson at Colorado State University sees this as an especially pertinent question as there are days when over one billion people—that’s one out of every seven inhabitants of Earth—log onto Facebook. The issue is not that social media as a platform is the problem per se, but how we use it!