Going away to college — whether across town or across the country — used to offer students an opportunity to remake their social image. But in the age of Facebook that’s not always the case anymore, according to a new study compiled by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers.
The popular social networking site tethers childhood to adulthood in a way that previous generations didn’t encounter. While it may ease homesickness and help students quickly feel a sense of belonging in their new environment, it also creates an impediment to independence and presents challenges to students who want to reinvent themselves, according to a study conducting by Jenna Stephenson-Abetz and Amanda Holman. Both are second-year graduate students pursuing Ph.Ds in interpersonal and family communication at UNL.
“I know when I went off to college, Facebook didn’t exist,” Holman said. “I left my old life in a way and no one really followed me to my new life. Now Facebook creates a way so that your old life comes with you.”
Their findings stem from in-depth interviews with 30 students who were in their first three semesters of college. The group’s makeup was evenly split between male and female and included a wide assortment of academic majors. Each participant also had an active Facebook account that was checked at least seven times a week.
The study identified three sets of tensions: the struggle between preserving their old selves and reinvention, the strain between uniqueness and conformity, and the tension between when to reveal and when to conceal.
Students want to post photos and status updates and other profile information that makes them stand out as unique, but they also feel pressured to conform, whether to fit in better with their new peers or to meet the expectations of those watching back home, according to the study.
“They have parents and extended family, old friends from high school and new friends from college all in the same space — all sort of colliding,” Stephenson-Abetz said.
When it comes to the challenge of understanding how much to reveal, the question isn’t just about how much they should post online. It’s about how to navigate offline relationships and what to reveal about what they learned on Facebook without appearing strange or obsessed.
“One student said she wanted to be friends with a girl in her English class. She knew what kind of music the girl liked because of Facebook, so she had it on in the background when the girl came over to visit … but she didn’t want to tell her she learned it on Facebook because that would be risky,” Stephenson-Abetz said.
The study also found that the college transition marked the first time most students had to negotiate different parts of themselves. While Stephenson-Abetz and Holman didn’t study older populations, they acknowledged that the findings could apply to people at other stages in their lives.
They have been selected to present their findings at the National Communication Association’s annual convention in November.
Contact: Jenna Stephenson-Abetz, (540) 220-5345 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Amanda Holman, (218) 329-6889 or Amanda.email@example.com.