On Campus, Trying to Connect

Text messaging, cellphone chatter and video links can make campus adjustment less lonely for first-time students like Annie Simon. But experts say some college students overdo it.
Text messaging, cellphone chatter and video links can make campus adjustment less lonely for first-time students like Annie Simon. But experts say some college students overdo it. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Stacy Weiner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

When Annie Simon starts class this month at the University of Southern California, she won't have to worry about finding only strange faces in the sea of 16,000 students. She saw to that this summer.

"As soon as I got back from orientation [in June], I went on Facebook and friended a bunch of people who I met at USC to establish a connection," says the District native, 18. "Then when I get to campus, it'll be, 'Oh, I remember you. I know you.' "

Like Simon, many of the country's 2 million or more incoming freshmen are taking the high-tech approach to college camaraderie. But over-reliance on technology, experts say, can also hamper their adjustment by making it easy for some students to hold too tight to the life and friends they've left behind.

"The transition to college is naturally uncomfortable," says Harlan Cohen, author of "The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College." "Because of technology, you can stay in touch with the people who love you the most, and it has become so easy to use that as a crutch. It's really easy to get caught behind the fifth wall of technology, which isolates students."

For the incoming crop of college students, who can't recall life before the Internet and cellphones, that's a particular trap. Through social networking sites, instant messaging and other forms of e-communication, they'll figure out which roommate is bringing the microwave and whether or not to steer clear of politics. And when times get tough, they'll rest assured that they can call an old friend, text a quick question or even set up a webcam for a date with their hometown honey.

But that, psychologists and college life experts say, may leave them less emotionally available to confront new challenges, test their beliefs or engage in serious introspection -- what college was once thought to be about.

"Too often," Cohen says, "students are physically in one place but emotionally in another."

According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 65 percent of college freshmen suffer homesickness, which can discourage them from cutting the technological umbilical cord to their past acquaintances. In a 2007 report, the institute said that every day, a third of first-year students contacted friends from outside their institution.

Sometimes, such contact can exacerbate homesickness, as Christine Buras of the University of Chicago found.

"When I was in high school, I was in a serious choir," explains Buras, who grew up in Northwest Washington. "It had been so meaningful to me. I was with people in different grades, so some of them are still there. Talking to them made me miss the great experiences that I had and that they were still having." Even so, Buras says, she continued the contact because it would have been more painful to lose those hometown ties.

In some cases, Cohen says, technology itself is the old friend from home: Online games, porn and social networking sites can be seductive de-stressors that interfere with face-to-face interaction.

There's also a coolness to e-communications. "When so much can be mediated by technology, you don't have to have as many direct, visceral, human-to-human conversations," says Helen Johnson, a former assistant dean of students at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. What's more, Johnson worries, if nearly every nanosecond is spent connected, students risk losing track of their own feelings.

Virtual Ties

For more-timid students, cyberspace connections may offer more positives than negatives, argues Larry Rosen, a California State University psychology professor who studies the impact of technology on young people. Though Rosen acknowledges that Internet use can contribute to isolation, his research indicates that two-thirds of students who say they're shy in person report not being shy online. And, he believes, introverts build skills and confidence online that help them communicate more comfortably in person.

"Kids who spend more time on social networking sites feel like they are better able to transition through what happens to you psychologically in the early college years . . . . They can say things online that they'd never say directly to someone, and then they can watch the reactions they get," Rosen says. "The Internet lets them test out their world and their developing identities in a safe environment. It's serving a very important function."

Shy students aren't the only ones to recognize the value of technology as a social aid. While older grads likely recall the indignity of balancing a tray while desperately scanning the cafeteria for a familiar face, today even last-second meet-ups are just a text message away.

The downsides? "It creates a social environment in which everything can be arranged last minute," Johnson says. "A lot can be said for learning to plan and learning to reflect on your options and then make choices. The looseness affects how you think about social interaction."

Also, cellphone conversations frequently take place in public spaces, and digital chats have their own limitations. For example, people generate fewer words per minute -- about a third as many -- when typing as compared to speaking, explains Robert Kraut, a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Then there's the matter of the superficiality of a lot of the yakking and clacking with friends and family.

"I'm guilty of being in touch too often, of calling if there's something wrong," says Carly Roberts, a senior at George Washington University. "Or even if there's nothing wrong: 'Oh, I'm going to get a sandwich. I don't know what kind I want. What do you think?' It's a little ridiculous," she says. "Maybe we'd be more self-reliant without all that contact."

Still, Kraut says, instant messaging and other quick connections keep friends available for deeper conversations, and they help maintain a big pool of potential support.

Support on Demand

Annie Simon says she doesn't need to hear a friendly voice to enjoy tech support.

When she was picking a school, Simon recalls, USC impressed her enough during a visit that she began to feel stressed. (She hadn't expected to like it so much.) So she did what almost any young person would do: She pulled out her cell and texted a friend. "I was like, 'I'm kind of freaking out.' " Her pal Alexis tapped back, "Annie, calm down. Take two deep breaths." After a few more exchanges, she felt much better -- maybe even more so than if she'd just talked with her mom, who was sitting right next to her.

"Contacting Alexis was so important," she says. "She really calmed me down."

Texting was enough for Simon. But for those craving their old friends' voices and faces, video is an increasingly popular option.

Roberts already has some experience with that phenomenon. Her freshman-year roommate used a laptop webcam to stay in contact with her hometown boyfriend. "It let him feel like a part of her life, so it was nice in a way. But she left it on even when she left the room," Roberts says, "so it became really creepy."

And what does the sage-old senior generally think of all the gadgetry?

"It's hard to say whether it's positive or negative," Roberts says. "For kids my age and younger, this is just our lives. I grew up with my whole conscious memory having the Internet and cellphones. . . . It seems inconceivable to try to recall a time when it wasn't possible to talk on a whim."

"When you're in college, you really live in two different worlds," she adds. "Everybody is just trying to find a balance between being in touch with people from your old life and paying attention to where you are now, in your new one." ยท

Stacy Weiner writes frequently for Health about families and relationships. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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