Straight from the Source: A Youth View of Social Networking Woes

I love reading essays published by youth. In fact, part of my job consists of working with young writers and getting their work published either online or in print, and it’s extremely rewarding and educational. So I could not resist sharing this post (on Huff Post High School, but originally on TeenInk) from a young person who discusses how her addiction to Facebook interferes with her daily life as a student. While scholars continue to debate on the issue, it’s nice to actually listen to a narrative about experience rather than generalities every once in a while.

The author discusses her struggles with time suck — being drawn into social networking at the expense of getting her assignments done efficiently:

“When I sit down to write an essay, it can take me almost an hour to start my work. “Just one quick look at Facebook,” I think to myself. I then end up on the website for an extended period of time.”

She also gets even more serious when she discusses the need to maintain popularity, but in a way that is essentially false camaraderie:

“These websites are addicting because they give a false sense of community. Users are tricked into believing that they are part of a close group…People become addicted to the high they get when someone acknowledges them on these websites.” 

Even as an, ahem, “older” adult, I can fall into this trap. I sometimes wonder why a particular post of mine goes unnoticed, when I find it highly amusing and/or inspiring; it disappoints me for that moment (I think that’s the strongest word I can honestly write about my reaction, though sometimes my reaction can increase to “bummed”). Conversely, I can feel giddy when I see lots of people responding to something that I posted, especially when I didn’t expect anyone to really notice (So why even do it? That’s a question for another time).

While this story is not meant to infer that all young people suffer from these issues, I think it’s important to be reminded that there are young people who are struggling with, not always embracing, social networking.  And since socializing online is an integral part of the ways in which communities are formed and maintained, it’s important to understand where and when frustration and disconnect exist for youth — those whom older folk often assume celebrate such connections the most.

Getting to Know You

This post is going to be slightly off topic from my usual focus, but I think it’s important to consider as we all continue to conduct fundamental tasks online, and also develop relationships in cyberspace. Many of us shop, bank, and get our news online. More and more people are beginning to get an education over their computer. This study conducted in 2010 stated that 1 in 4 college students took at least one course online. And that rate certainly is not going to decrease any time soon.

It’s this education piece that is extra important to me. I have been a university faculty member on and off since 1998, and have been teaching courses in Human Sexuality since 1990 (gasp). Currently, I teach Human Sexuality online at Portland State University. Currently, PSU only offers one program in which students can complete all aspects of the degree online (although several online courses are offered in many departments). I have had students from not only the east coast, but also overseas. I have had students who have taken my course while incarcerated. Pretty amazing, if you think about it.

I recently encountered a serious limitation to online education — one I hadn’t really thought of before. I received an email from a former student asking for a letter of recommendation. Although I am sure this student was enrolled in my class, I have no recollection of her whatsoever. She was literally just a user name among approximately 130 that I managed for 10 short weeks. Sure, I could look up her grade and even reread her papers, but I honestly have no way of knowing whether or not this person would succeed in law school.

In the past, I have had many students who only had me as an instructor for one quarter in a campus-based class ask me for a letter of rec. And sometimes (alright, usually), I oblige, but at least I recognize the student’s face; I have some sense of who that person is, and how she conducted herself in my class; how she treated other students, and how she carries herself as a scholar. She may have even stopped by my office hours, or lingered after class to ask additional questions. I can ask her to have coffee, or come to my office so we can talk more about her aspirations and why she wants to continue her education.

I am realizing I have no sense of connection to any of my past online students. For any of them to ask me for a letter of rec seems utterly ridiculous to me, as none of them have ever written to me to discuss the course above and beyond asking for an extension or complaining about an assignment. In the years to come, this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem. Students are going to continue to take classes online, and colleges are going to continue to provide this option, as it is both desired and more profitable (at least from what I hear and assume, given that universities appear to be eager to increase online offerings).

What needs to be stressed to students by both instructors and the university itself is the importance of cultivating relationships online, since they aren’t going to happen face to face. It’s possible to get to know someone online, of course. I have developed some good professional relationships with people online that I have never (or only once) met in person. I feel I know these people well enough not only through their work, but through their character such that I would jump at the chance to collaborate with them on a project, should the opportunity arise. Students need to be made aware of the importance of getting to know their instructors, and understand that instructors need to know them above and beyond a score on an exam, or how well a thesis was articulated in a paper.

I can’t write a letter of recommendation for you if I don’t know you. And I can’t know you if all I associate with you is a score between 0-100. Online students — reach out to your instructors and share yourselves (as you so often do in other venues). Raise that social capital: Your future depends on it.

What’s in a Name?

In a classic example of communication breakdown, a new study reports that over half (58%) of those surveyed do not know what “social networking” is. The international study did note that 70% of Americans did recognize the term. However, that means that close to 1 in 3 persons in this country have somehow not been exposed to the phrase, or simply don’t remember what it means. Implications? We need to be careful about the terms we use when talking about the phenomenon of interacting with others in these types of online spaces. I know I am guilty of talking about “social networking,” as I do not want to call out certain sites and brands when talking about the concept as a whole. Too often, MySpace is scapegoated because people talk about the dangers associated with social networking in general, but end up picking on the best-known of the bunch (too bad that survey didn’t ask the percentage of persons who have heard of MySpace specifically). But if using the term “social networking” alienates too many people, then we fail to get our message across. While I have no answers, I do believe this issue is important; much like my last post on cyberbulling vs. electronic aggression, I want to stress the need to come to some semblance of consensus on terms so that we educate the public, not confuse them. And given the Ivory Tower’s bad reputation for trying to claim expertise at the expense of being useful or collaborative, there is ample reason to prioritize clear communication about issues without using all those fancy and/or new words.

CDC Recognizes Cyberbullying

The Center for Disease Control released a report, Electronic Media and Youth Violence, on September 8th. According to the emailed press release, “Electronic aggression is an emerging public health issue,” and therefore should be acknowledged by educators, caregivers, and researchers.

I find it interesting that the feds feel the need to rename cyberbullying “electronic aggression.” Isn’t one term enough? Is it possible that people might confuse the two and think they are really separate things? I hope not. As an academic, I am often annoyed by the jargon that separates different camps. The last thing we need is to begin divisive investigations on this topic, based on a public health vs. a psychological/educational approach.

And, not surprisingly, the brief mentions nothing about how many times this sort of aggression has sexual themes. In fact, while searching the brief, I found no mention of “boyfriend/girlfriend,” “sex” (except for one parenthetical comment about how what they were referring to was NOT sexual), or “stalking.” While I am happy to see that the CDC is addressing this issue directly, there’s still a long way to go before adults see that the sexual nature of so many of these instances of electronic aggression cannot be ignored.

Are you in an online relationship? A research opportunity

This is an announcement I am passing along. This research is being conducted by a good friend of mine who can be trusted. She is a therapist who understands the need for confidentiality. She teaches a class on Sex and the Internet, and takes this issue very seriously (but has fun with it).

—Pasted Text Below—

I am conducting a study for my doctoral dissertation at Widener University, looking at characteristics of individuals who are involved in online romantic relationships with people they have never met face-to-face. I will be comparing people for whom these relationships are their primary romantic involvement, with people for whom these relationships are an addition to an off-line committed relationship.

If you have been or if you know of anyone who is involved in one of these online relationships (or has been involved in one), would you be so kind as to pass along this link to my study survey?
This is a completely anonymous survey, and no data can be traced to any particular individual.
I appreciate any help you can give me in acquiring participants for this research!


Yolanda Turner
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Eastern University
St. Davids, Pa., 19087

What Inspires Us?

An “interesting” article in the Washington Post takes issue with academics who study social networking. I know a lot of people who begrudge the Ivory Tower, but never had I seen it so blatantly attacked and mocked. To quote: “The culture of academia is like a land rush: professors poised around the edges of each new intellectual territory, waving flags emblazoned with theoretical frameworks, making frenzied dashes to stake claim on new topics, ready to shoot trespassers.” Or how about ” The lingo makes you want to give everyone with a PhD an atomic wedgie.” I mean, really.

I’ll admit: academe is a very competitive career choice, especially if you desire the all-coveted tenure-track position (note: I have opted not to go this route, placing me somewhat on the outside of this article’s target range). And it is important in academe to publish, be noticed, and get the grant money flowing your way. But, is that why some are choosing to study social networking? Possibly, but I am not sure how likely that is.

Why do I study the internet? Because it’s cool. It’s fun and interesting. It’s literally changed the entire way we communicate with each other. It’s changed the process of learning. That’s heavy stuff. Sure, MySpace is usually seen as a time waster, but a lot of living goes on in there, other SN sites, and virtual worlds like Second Life. Why shouldn’t the intellectually curious be fascinated by it all?

Maybe I’m being defensive. It’s a natural reaction. Or maybe articles like these make me realize it’s important for people who study certain topics (usually those related to human interactions and phenomena) to be more transparent about their motivations for doing so. We don’t pick topics out of mid-air to study. Sure, sometimes an advisor or mentor steers us in a certain direction, but those of us who decide to enter the 21st grade as it were, choose to be in school that long because something interests us to the point of obsession or passion. Or we have some internal itch to scratch. As my college boyfriend would say “Us Psychology majors are all here for a reason.”

Rarely are we motivated to do what we do just to see our name in the newspaper. And if we are, then we are misguided — there are much easier ways to do that.

Note: Chuck Tryon, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Fayetteville State University blogs about this attack on academics much more eloquently than I.