On College Campuses, Social Media Provides Private Spaces for Thousands

On College Campuses, Social Media Provides Private Spaces for Thousands

This article is part of our latest Learning special report. We’re focusing on Generation Z, which is facing challenges from changing curriculums and new technology to financial aid gaps and homelessness.

When Hailey Robinson, a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, was knocked over by a campus shuttle bus rolling to a stop, instinct kicked in.

“I stood up and got out my phone to tweet about it,” she said.

Ms. Robinson is hardly unusual. For Gen Z, life does not happen if it is not recorded on social media. That is where students go to complain, empathize, poke fun, debate, procrastinate, give and seek support or get a laugh. And belong.

“It makes me feel understood,” said Manya Rozet, a junior at the University of Washington, who turned to a campus Facebook meme page after she “didn’t do superhot in my computer science class.” Scrolling through meme posts — photos and videos with witty text — created by classmates, she said, “makes you feel less alone about what you are going through.”

The tools — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit — are not brand-new, but instead of using them to share vacation photos or spread political messages (as their parents might), students are subscribing to feeds that offer them “private” conversations — with thousands.

Students say that the grip and velocity of social media — like a fight song or a chant — are making it a defining part of college life.

“There are these two dimensions of experiences going on on college campuses,” said Katie Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School who studies the role of new media in child and teen development.

“You have your face-to-face experience, and you also have this background experience happening in social media.”

The online piece is equally real and even “can feel more important,” said Dr. Davis, who with Howard Gardner co-wrote “The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World.”

She said students were seeking “to carve out space for themselves that feels more authentic and private” than adult culture.

This is what Spencer Mowdy Hill, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent hundreds of hours doing since 2018 when he revived the “Overheard at UC Berkeley” Facebook page (more than 42,000 members) and a “Confessions From UC Berkeley” page (19,000-plus followers).

Mr. Hill, who is majoring in applied mathematics, said he believed that the social media experience was “part of what it means to be a Berkeley student.”

“It is a shared narrative, you know?” he said. “Whatever you post, people will be talking about it in these pages.”

Many campuses have “Overheard” and “Confessions” pages. The former feature snippets of overheard talk, the latter anonymous musings that, at Berkeley, range from goofy (“Poll: Preference? arms or abs”) to weighty (“I feel like my presence doesn’t matter to anyone”).

Things can get out of hand. Harvard rescinded admissions offers to 10 prospective students who exchanged obscene memes in a private Facebook chat in 2017. And Yale’s “Overheard” page in January included a screenshot of a derisive course evaluation of a professor that spurred such a pile-on of new harsh comments that a faculty member called out those who posted in a Yale Daily News opinion piece.

At Berkeley, Mr. Hill and seven moderators review posts. There has been lots to monitor, including claims of sexual assault and, recently, a video capturing a student saying racist things.

“It has been a learning experience about what you can and cannot do on the internet,” said Mr. Hill, who includes his social media roles on his résumé and LinkedIn profile. What he has noticed most after reading thousands of posts is that “people are really struggling out there.”

It is both a cliché and an aim of social media to build community. “It has helped me,” he said. “Seeing everything, I feel less alone in everything I go through.”

At the University of Washington, “UW Teens for Boundless Memes” (27,000 members) is popular because “it’s where you will find memes about all the tough things that happen to you as a U.W. student,” said Lydia Ely, a senior, who helped start the Facebook page and is photo editor of The Daily, the campus newspaper.

“It’s a coping mechanism,” she said. (The “boundless” in the name pokes fun at the university’s “Be Boundless” campaign.)

Memes play with worries like midterms, the coronavirus, global warming, getting into a major. Even emergencies. A January alert about a midday armed robbery in which “suspect displayed ax” brought on several. One used a photo of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” thrusting an ax through a door and added, “Stay safe out there, dawgs.” It got 462 responses.

Students want to share real life as it happens, said Ms. Robinson, the senior who tweeted about being hit by the campus shuttle and is now the social media editor of The Daily. She spoke during a group interview in the newsroom, a brightly lit, grungy space whose walls bear decades of quotes by staff members memorialized in (decidedly undigital) handwritten scrawls.

“When I use Twitter,” said Ms. Robinson, who has seven Twitter accounts, “I’m not trying to make myself seem more interesting.”

Not everyone loves the constancy of social media or the public exposure that comes with posting. “It just stresses me out,” said Mira Petrillo, editor in chief of The Daily.

“I don’t like thinking about experience in terms of what I could present to others in a certain way. I don’t like that double-consciousness,” she said. “It takes me out of being in community.”

Ms. Petrillo also said that she was “not very good at it.” If there is a competitive vibe — who can be clever enough to spur conversation? — it’s also exhausting. “The schtick of trying to be edgy just gets old after a while,” said Josh Kirschenbaum, a senior and The Daily’s managing editor. One problem? Memes or topics that once “lasted for two months” now “last, for like, two days.”

It is hard to look away from social media. Which is what bothers Ms. Petrillo, a senior majoring in philosophy and the comparative history of ideas. One of her favorite aspects of college “is sitting down and reading” and “letting thoughts move around,” she said. “If it is interrupted with social media, that is done.”

Part of college is about chewing on tough ideas. Can students do that if they are so often on their phones, with their attention split?

Eric P. Chiang, an economics professor at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, Fla., whose class sizes range from 15 to 510 students, was curious. With Albert J. Sumell, economics professor at Youngstown State University, in Ohio, he gathered data on 922 students taking introductory economics.

The study, “Are Your Students Absent, Not Absent, or Present? Mindfulness and Student Performance,” was published last year in the Journal of Economic Education. Among the findings: Cutting mobile device use in class was linked to an “increase in a student’s relative performance.”

Phones are a problem, but banning them, Dr. Chiang said, “makes you look like an old-fashioned professor.” He’d rather pepper his classes with activities requiring responses, including asking students to text. About economics. (“Should unemployment benefits be more generous?”)

Students want to keep their public sites, well, private. They do not want nonstudents on campus joining their social media conversations. As soon as they do, said Dr. Davis, the professor studying new media and youth, “it is no longer particularly cool.”

This has created a puzzle for campus leaders trying to reach students. How can you share opportunities to build leadership skills, work in the community, get internships, improve health and wellness, get study tips, or stay safe?

Janice Fournier, a research scientist in the Information Technology office, said she and her colleagues were “constantly trying to understand the student experience, what are they doing now, what are the pain points, how can we help?” She tracks how students learn of opportunities and decide to get involved. Her research shows that students tend to avoid official channels.

“They do not go to U.W.’s home page, they don’t go to the calendar,” she said. A survey showed that many “didn’t know an events calendar existed.”

It is not enough to be on platforms students are on, like Facebook or Instagram, she said. Administrators must create messages that capture students’ attention. And that is tough because student focus changes so fast. “It’s hard to keep up with them,” she said.

Yet sometimes being behind pays off. Recently, Dr. Fournier said her IT unit, Academic Experience Design and Delivery, posted a photo with the article “Managing Procrastination.” It is part of the Husky Experience Toolkit they created to offer helpful tips. It showed a student at a laptop playing a video game with an Xbox controller in hand.

The particular game, it turns out, actually uses a keyboard and mouse. A student caught the slip, posted a screenshot of the article on “Overheard at UW,” and admonished the person pictured: “No wonder you’ll fail your exam.”

Campus leaders celebrated, via email: “Guess they are reading the messages. Lol.”


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