Seemingly everyone has an account with a social media website. Whether its Facebook, Twitter, Orkut, or one of the many others, people are more connected than ever. Some who signed up for an account on a social media site never use it, but for others, it’s become an obsession, something on which they rely upon too much. The remarkable thing about social networks is how they opened up this new way to communicate, regardless of how people choose to use them. Social networking has gone beyond what the internet and email opened up in the 1990s and we’ve reached a point of constant connection and personal sharing.
One area social networking has had an interesting impact is study abroad. In the past, students who have chosen to go abroad to continue their education have largely been separated from home. Students, in many respects, were cut off from the familiar and taken out of their comfort zones to a fairly extreme degree. Essentially, studying abroad helped to foster personal growth in the individual. They had to experience entirely new things: cultures, traditions, behaviors, food, people, and everything in between. While a student may have started out “alone,” over the course of the study abroad experience, that sense of “alone” faded away as they become immersed and step out of their comfort zone.
Now, with the internet and social networks, things have shifted. Some of those changes are positive, some not so much. In what we might call the early days of the “modern” internet, let’s say the late 1990s or early 2000s, as social networking developed conceptually, those in a study abroad program may have had internet access, but they had to find it and depending on their location, finding access may have been a considerable challenge. Internet cafés began to appear and students could occasionally visit the café, send an email, and that was about it. It wasn’t a time consuming endeavour and it wasn’t a priority.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a dramatic shift in that access. We’ve entered the age of constant connections. We have internet access on a number of highly portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, devices we carry with us everywhere we go, including when we go abroad. We no longer have to seek out a connection, it’s come to us.
The question is, does this connection harm the study abroad experience? There isn’t a clear answer, but since it has fundamentally changed it, it’s an important question to ask. For one, that separation from home is virtually non-existent. Gone are the days of saying goodbye, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, to your family and friends. Now, it’s a goodbye, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Students can be in constant contact with home. They can post updates, photos, video, and talk every day. While they still may be stepping out a comfort zone, that step is considerably softened, and when stepping out a comfort zone is soften like this, it directly impacts how the individual grows and learns.
Additionally, social networking has become a distraction. Updating a personal network or blog is time consuming. There’s post writing, uploading photos and video, responding, and having general conversations. It gets in the way of the real world experience, not to mention studying. So, then, it becomes a question of balance and what the individual wants out of the overall experience. It’s about learning and self-discovery and it’s difficult to accomplish this when you immerse yourself in the familiar and distracted.
To answer the initial question, yes, social networking and a constant internet connection can have a negative impact on the study abroad experience if it isn’t managed properly.What social networking provides should be tempered. It should be a passive tool, a log or digital journal of your experiences, and not a dominant influence. Leaving home for a few months, a summer, or end entire year is an incredible and rewarding challenge, a chance to grow and to take a huge leap out of the comfort zone. For some in living in the connected era, taking a step back from their digital reality may be a challenge, but like the study abroad, isn’t that challenge the point?
Image Credit: www.techfever.net