Social Media and Study Abroad – Addiction?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently cited a new study out of the University of Maryland that indicates that students who are denied social media describe their withdrawal symptoms in terminology similar to those of drug and alcohol addicts. According to the Chronicle article, the study from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, “24 Hours: Unplugged,” asked 200 students on the campus to give up all media for a full day and blog on private Web sites about their experience. Student reaction showed addiction like withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, misery, and being jittery, the authors wrote.

I got a taste of this when recently co-facilitating a pre-departure orientation for a summer program in Spain.  The students regularly asked about whether or not to bring their lap tops and how to best manipulate their smart phones to work in Europe.

My gut reaction is to want to stand up and SCREAM at the top of my lungs:  “Drop the technology!  Step away from the keyboard! Dump your phone into the nearest lake (ok, not very green, I admit…but you get my point)!”

Since I could not reasonably do this and remain gainfully employed, I gently interjected, reminding the students that simply walking down the street in Madrid will be a whole new sensory experience –  history, architecture, shops, smells of food, music, traffic, people, sights, etc.  I wanted them to trust that they won’t be glaring down at the cell phone wanting to know who is texting about their annoying little brother, or worse yet, “four squaring you” to tell you that they checked in at the local Seven-Eleven to buy a sugar loaded Big Gulp.

Really, I promise, you will NOT miss it.  I promise you will be so completely absorbed by your new surroundings that you won’t want to observe the musings of your peers on Facebook.  The relationship statuses, random thoughts and “Mafia War”/”Farmville” statuses simply won’t matter.

But how do you get this across to an 18 year old who is socialized to feel withdrawal symptoms when they can’t text or Facebook for 24 hours?

Thankfully, an old soul in the pre-departure meeting makes the connection that plugging in your laptop and sucking up the electricity in your home stay may not be the most appropriate way to introduce yourself as an American college student.  Or an American. Or a guest in someone’s home.  Or a world citizen trying to respect energy resources.

Who says there isn’t hope for our youth?

This is quickly countered by a student who wants to download her photos daily for her art class. Dang it! It is a fair request, I suppose.

I feel the tug of war raging inside of me.  To tech or not to tech? That is the question.

The irony is that I write this on my lap top, post it to my Melibee Global Facebook Fan page and then load it to my LinkedIn profile status update.   I have also partnered with Digital Strategy Works (the shop that created my blog) and we are consulting together in all matters that relate to digital media and international education.  Does this make me a hypocrite?  Sigh.

Ah, technology.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…


  1. Barbara in NJ USA says:

    My husband and I have been traveling internationally for 16 years. In the early years, we would visit internet cafes, mainly to research things we'd seen and done, and to plan additional sites to visit (query times/days they are open, for example). Walking down the street, we would become curious about something and would make a note and the next time we saw an internet cafe, we'd look it up. Now my husband has an iphone (we shut down the phone part & just use it as a wifi for websites). Most cafes are wifi enabled, so we are able to do our research even more easily. Although we can read our emails, it is usually too difficult or even impossible to answer them. Sometimes I'll scan FB, but I figure I can always do that when I get home. We try to buy newspapers in English (such as the International Herald Tribune) just to have some link to the world. Mostly we go sightseeing, using public transportation when possible, and meeting local people whenever we can. One has to strive for a sense of balance and remember that we've gone abroad to experience something new.

    • Hi Barbara – Thanks for your comment. It is definitely useful to be able to look up information via the web and cell phone technology, no doubt. My concern is more with the amount of time that students spend communicating with home instead of exploring the host culture. This often happens over hours of texting, IM and Facebook. But I do certainly agree, it is important to have a balance so that you're getting useful information and seeing and experiencing as much as possible. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

  2. jessiev says:

    missy – this is critical, and gets to the heart of communicating today. we rarely go out and do face to face any more – so how are we learning about others (wherever we are)? GREAT article.

  3. Hi Jessie – I do struggle with the lack of "face to face" connection in this world of technology. I too am referencing deeper vs broad connection. Thanks for your kind words!

  4. Nancy U says:

    As I am working on a Master's in Global and International Education, with a focus in higher education; I frequently state my opinion that students should not have total access to social media with them when they are abroad.

    Using it for obtaining local information is one thing. But using it as a lifeline to be tethered back home undermines the whole experience. Many of today's youth do not think to, or know how to read a map or a telephone directory. They do not interact with others to obtain information or directions. There is a great loss of opportunity when they resort to social media.

    More and more research is coming out lately that back up my opinion. Yet, people often do not understand my point. 25 years ago, I left the US to live in a small village in Germany. Despite my German heritage and formal foreign language courses, I was not prepared for some of the matters I faced. But it was sink or swim, and I learned how to swim. It was a wonderful experience.

    I know one professor that leads a small group to an island every year. She spends twelve hours a day with the students, and gets continues to receive emails and texts.

    Yes, this is an addiction, and it is considered to be a serious health epidemic in some countries today. I find it sad that many of today's youth do not experience the serendipity of life or feel that sense of freedom and not being disturbed when they are unplugged.

  5. Shaina says:

    As a recent college graduate who studied abroad, I would like to present another side of the situation. I do understand that college students can easily get carried away with social media and connection to home, however social media was also a lifeline for me while abroad. I did not feel connected to my fellow program participants, and there was a big language barrier with locals. I made honest efforts to go out and do things during the day, but coming home and having a conversation with a friend online or trading fb posts, or just generally knowing what was going on at home kept me sane. I also may have never decided to go abroad if I thought I couldn’t keep in touch well with my boyfriend (who was also abroad halfway around the world). As has been mentioned, it’s a balance. It can provide many new opportunities as well as problems.

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      Thank you for your honesty Shaina! Many of us in this field were abroad pre-Facebook and recall how much we had to work through those moments without having "instant access" to home. Calling home then was a luxury so we either dealt with it or chose to use those precious pennies for a phone call. We do live in a world with less borders in so many ways – making it easier to be in touch as needed. May I ask where you studied and how long ago it was? I'll be curious what your thoughts are looking back. I'd also love for you to see the latest post called "Study Abroad…Maybe?" and read the comments – would LOVE your perspective too! Many thanks for writing! Missy 🙂

  6. Halie says:

    Missy, I definitely see your point (my dad is always on his iPhone looking things up when travelling and it drives me crazy!), but I’ve also had a different experience. I spent last year as a master’s student at Cambridge, and without social media I wouldn’t have really been able to integrate into the community, because the university culture is very plugged in there as well! Even though my college at Cambridge was the tightest community I’ve ever been a part of, we used facebook and texting to supplement our face-to-face interaction (and to plan events!)

    Now that I’m working in London on an internship, my experience is more like Shaina’s — without social media, I would feel totally cut off from my friends at home and at Cambridge (London isn’t a particularly friendly place for young professionals).

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      Excellent points Halie. I think keeping in touch with locals via social media makes sense. I think the struggle I have with it is that for many, it becomes a crutch (e.g. I didn't make friends fast enough, so I'm connecting with home for several hours a day daily.) I'm curious about your experiences in London as an intern – you reference that it isn't a particularly friendly place for young professionals. Can you expand on that? Thanks so much for writing!

      • Hi Missy!
        It’s kind of a big, spread-out city — most of the people I’ve talked to have had similar experiences that it takes a very long time to build a community when moving here. The people it’s easiest to connect with are other expats (especially Australians) — but even then, it’s unlikely that you’ll live particularly near anyone else (especially since we’re all young and poor and live on the outskirts). For example, one of my friends lives London, but it would take me over 2 hours to get to his apartment! I think the opportunities are there for study abroad and university students because you belong to a community, and you’re definitely right that facebook is often a distraction from the place that you’re in. As a young professional, though, I don’t really have an identity in London other than being an expat, so I am doing exactly what you said — I’m not making friends quickly, so I’m relying on skype and facebook. On the other hand, it’s so expensive to do anything in London (and by that I mostly mean the transportation costs) that the most responsible option IS using skype instead of putting in the leg-work to make friends. I’m just thankful that I already had the awesome cultural immersion experience last year!

        • Missy Gluckmann says:

          Halie – your comment has inspired my team to do a blog post with suggestions on how to meet locals (especially when you're not on a formal study abroad program) that are easy and will get you interacting with others more! Hang on till next week – we're working on it! 🙂

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