Students dependent on technology—for better or worse

Many students surveyed focused on the limits of popular social media sites.
A survey of student technology use focused on the limits of popular social media sites.

Technology has become so entwined with college students’ often frantic lives that most in a new survey of student technology use say they’d be more frazzled without it.

Yet the Associated Press-mtvU poll, released Oct. 7 , also found that being perpetually connected comes at a cost. While 57 percent of students said life without computers and cell phones would make them more stressed, a significant number—25 percent—said it would be a relief.

A big majority feel pressured to instantly answer texts or voice mail messages, most get nervous if someone doesn’t immediately reply to a message, and nearly half worry whether messages they get are jokes.

“If you’re without it, you’re disconnected,” Megan Earley, 20, a junior at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., said of student technology. “You feel like it’s a lifeline.”

The internet’s central role for many students was underscored by two events last month. In the first, a social media “blackout” at Harrisburg University made students realize just how tethered to technology they are every day. In the second, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after others secretly webcast his sexual encounter with another man.

News reports said Clementi left a note on his Facebook page reading, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

The AP-mtvU poll of student technology use, conducted before Clementi’s death became public, found that 9 in 10 had been on a social networking site like Facebook in the past week. About the same number routinely text to arrange meetings with friends, and two-thirds relax by watching movies or TV shows online.

On a deeper level, many students use technology to emit cries for help. One in five say they’ve posted public messages on sites like Facebook seeking emotional support, while more than two-thirds say they’ve read public posts by friends pleading for such assistance. Women are more likely than men to post such messages or say they’ve seen them.

“This ability to reach out and get our friends to help us, it comes at a price of being much more exposed, and people being much more visible and under stress because we can’t always control the message about ourselves,” said Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied online social networks.

Those postings open a window into a world where 8 in 10 students say their lives are happy—yet 6 in 10 say they’ve recently felt too stressed to hang out with friends, an increase over the past two years. Similar numbers say they’ve been too agitated for school work.

Twenty percent say they have a friend who has discussed suicide over the past year, and 13 percent say a friend has tried to kill himself or herself. Nine percent have considered it themselves.