Constantly Connected: The Impact of Social Media and the Advancement in Technology on the Study Abroad Experience

By Sarah Wooley
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 2/4 |

Applying Social Networking Sites to Abroad Experience

Decades ago, face-to-face communication was essential in maintaining most personal relationships. However, according to Adler, Rosenfeld, and Proctor (2012), proximity isn't a requirement anymore. Personal relationships can now be maintained through the Internet and social media on any mobile device. Social media collectively describes all the channels that make online personal communications possible. From sending a text message to posting on Facebook, there are endless uses of digital media (Adler et al., 2012). According to Zemmels (2012), since 1997 social networking has established itself as a common method of communication because of its ability to constantly generate new information. More and more individuals have developed an active presence on social networking sites, creating a valuable and universal platform for communication. Social networking sites (SNS) are web-based services that allow individuals to create a profile and create a community through shared connections. These platforms create a culture for sharing creations. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. have allowed users to build and maintain social connections through creation and distribution of information.

Today, a conversation over social media can be compared to going over to a friend's house, or meeting a friend for coffee. This accessibility was not available prior to the Internet-based forms of communication (Zemmels, 2012). At the beginning of 2010, almost 75% of Americans under the age of 20 used social networking sites (Adler et al., 2012). New media technologies have made online communication platforms and immediate international communication possible (Zemmels, 2012).

"Life takes place on screen," wrote Mirzoeff (as cited in Zemmels, 2012, p. 13 ). Social media gives its users a sense of identity and community. Users are able to become active agents in new media environments and produce their own content (Zemmels, 2012). SNSs allow users to maintain connections with friends. "Social voyeurism" is a term used to describe social media users browsing through SNSs and interacting with other users in order to catch up on the goings-on in society (Buckingham, 2008, p. 122).

Through uploading information immediately, the mobile device becomes the key tool for capturing moments, storing information and documenting experiences to relay back home. Access to social media on mobile smartphones represents a "lifeline to self-perception, a means of documenting a social life, expressing preferences, creating networks and sharing experiences" (Buckingham, 2008, p. 158).

Lin, Peng, Kim M., Kim, S., & LaRose (2012) believe that SNSs continue to receive attention for their effects on social capital and psychological well-being. Social capital describes the resources and benefits received from relationships with other people. With the advancement in technology, the ability to gain social capital has transitioned to social media. Used to maintain pre-existing relationships as well as create new ones, social networks have revolutionized the way friends and families connect. Social networks take the place of face-to-face communication. SNSs provide the information and support that sustain relationships during transitions to a new environment. When individuals enter a new environment, such as studying abroad in a new country, they must adopt different social and cultural patterns. Establishing a social network in a new environment is important for adjustment (Lin et al., 2012). According to Hendrickson, Rosen, & Aune (2011), students who study abroad may experience homesickness or discontent, which is why they remain constantly connected to their social networks.

Sojourners are on the move, constantly processing, absorbing and exchanging information. Smartphones make it possible for these students to access and share information independent of physical location. "The mobile is a ubiquitous, pervasive communication device which young people find difficult to be without, whether they like it or hate it, or feel something in between" (Buckingham, 2008, p.146).

Chen (2012) states that this high interaction of online social activity challenges the way reality and personal identity are perceived. According to Buckingham (2008), when talking on the phone or having a text message conversation, the outside world is shut out. Buckingham uses a term, absent presence, to relate the distance created when using technology in a distracting manor. Absent presence is being physically present in one space, but mentally present in another. "Our use or refusal to use social media, says something about us as individuals" (Buckingham, 2008, p. 145).

Based on the literature review, the following three research questions were asked and two hypotheses were established.

  • RQ1: Why do study abroad students use social networking?
  • RQ2: How often do study abroad students utilize social networking?
  • RQ3: If "Life takes place on screen," how does the constant connection to social communities affect the study abroad experience?
  • H1: The constant connection to social media platforms while abroad benefits students' relationships in home country.
  • H2: The constant connection to social media platforms while abroad creates distance from the culture of the students' surroundings.

III. Methods

This study examined how new technology and access to social media abroad have impacted the student study abroad experience. The researcher investigated the topic through an online survey and a focus group, which provided well-rounded explanations to research questions.

In April 2013, 100 people participated in an online survey through SurveyMonkey (surveymonkey. com). The researcher invited all of her Facebook "friends" to complete the survey. Users were able to complete the survey by clicking a link. The survey was directed towards university students that have previously studied abroad. The researcher chose a survey because it enabled the researcher to collect data from a high number of representatives.

The survey included a variety of questions regarding how participants communicated with their friends/family at home, how often participants used social media while abroad and what kind of impact new technologies had on their overall study abroad experience (Refer to Appendix I for survey questions). The participants also had an opportunity to express their opinion on whether or not the advancement in technology and the convenience of social media positively or negatively impacted their abroad experience. These questions will further identify the benefits and setbacks of the use of social media by today's sojourners.

The focus group was conducted in April 2013 with eight Elon University students who have previously studied abroad. The focus group lasted 30 minutes. In order to provide a greater, more in-depth perspective on the use of technology and social media while abroad, the focus group participants were selected from different groups in terms of their study abroad location and year.

In the focus group, questions were asked about the use of cellphones abroad, Internet access, how the participants utilized social media and the positive/negative impact this had on their study abroad experience (Refer to Appendix II for focus group questions). The researcher chose to do focus a group in order to receive personal opinions, stories and experiences from previous study abroad students. The focus group also gave participants an opportunity to answer open-ended questions about important/unimportant aspects of new technology and social media during the study abroad experience.

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