Almost every student surveyed said they owned a digital device.

The Facebook tidbits, the Twitter updates, the eMails and instant messages and Craigslist postings – they’re all so tempting. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) student Sarah Barnes says she can ignore them for hours at a time, while many students say they can’t, even for 10 minutes.

Prying herself away from her smartphone and laptop during professors’ lectures isn’t easy, said Barnes, 20, a child development major at SNHU. When she’s not in class though, she’s on her Blackberry or laptop or iPod Touch, sending about 900 text messages every month, playing games, and checking eMail and class websites.

Nearly four in 10 college students said they could not go 10 minutes without checking one of their mobile devices, “about the same amount of time it takes to walk to class,” according to a study released last week by CourseSmart, a leading eTextbook company based in California.

Almost every one of the 500 college students surveyed – 98 percent – said they own a digital device, and many said the technology made more time for their busy schedules. Eighty-five percent of respondents said their devices save time while studying – an average of two hours a day.

Even Barnes, who puts her Blackberry away during class, said the lure of a quick social media check is sometimes too much to resist.

“It has distracted me every now and then in class,” she said. “When I’m on my laptop I would sometimes drift off to Facebook. … But I would say it hasn’t impacted my education very much because I am so focused on getting good grades.”

Scrolling through Facebook news feeds and tweeting with friends and family has, for some college students, become a constant, welcomed interruption.

Kate Caroll, a junior history major at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she checks her smartphone “pretty incessantly,” inside and outside of class.

“The phone never leaves my side, wherever I am,” said Carroll, 33, who has connected with online friends since the mid-1990s, when she frequented web-based bulletin board systems (BBSs). “Even if I’m at home watching TV, I’ll have the phone in my hand, and at the very least, I recheck Facebook during every commercial. I’ll also check it at every red light while I’m driving, and every stop sign if there isn’t anyone behind me.”

Checking and rechecking social media sites has become a “compulsion” and a “habit” for many students, Carroll said, and while she’s aware of how often she glances at her smartphone or laptop, attempts to break the habit have, so far, been for naught.

“I could go 10 minutes without checking it, if I tried. I’ve occasionally shut my phone off to try and wean myself off of the constant connection,” she said. “I’m always right back on.”

Perusing social media sites and texting back and forth with friends for even a few minutes has become ingrained in how students – and non-students – work through projects, study, and work, social media researchers said.

“The trend of checking devices is going to get worse for a while before it gets better,” said Julie Germany, cofounder of the Association for Social Media and Higher Education, and former director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. “For many people, connecting through text, eMail, chat, and social media has become an important interruption. I suspect we’ll become even more addicted before we see people begin to take longer breaks from their devices.”

Germany said the presence of smartphones with speedy web connections has transformed lectures, and even meetings: “People talk on the phones, write papers for other classes, and connect socially.”

“It’s not all bad, either,” she said. “Some of us Google issues, people, situations, or theories during lectures, for example, and that provides additional context and a new level of learning.

Professors should try to incorporate popular social media sites that students scour every waking hour into their course curriculum, Germany said, and students should remember that lectures and discussion sections still have a purpose in the age of digital devices.

“It’s hard to disconnect,” she said. “In some ways, educators need to adapt by being more interactive. In other ways, students need to learn to when shut down their devices, pay attention, and learn.”

Some campus technologists were alarmed by research released in April 2010 that raised questions about social media addiction among college students.

University of Maryland students who went 24 hours without TV, cell phones, MP3 players, and laptops reported symptoms one might expect from someone struggling with substance abuse, including an “unbearable” need for electronic communication, persistent anxiety, and a frantic “craving for some technology.”

The university’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) on April 21 released the findings of its study, “24 Hours: Unplugged,” which had 200 undergraduates go without access to any form of media for one day, even requiring study participants to leave their dormitory if a roommate was watching TV.

The students blogged about their technology detox afterward and compiled more than 100,000 words on the study’s website, roughly the length of a 400-page novel.

Responses varied from aggravation to frustration to isolation, which was especially keen for students without access to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, or the ability to send dozens of text messages throughout the day.

Carroll said prevalence of smartphones, laptops, and computer tablets like Apple’s iPad has made it abundantly clear that – on college campuses, at least – digital communication trumps the outmoded, outdated face-to-face model.

“It’s become our preferred method of interaction,” Carroll said. “You could be sitting across the table from the person in your life who you find most interesting, and most attractive, and love more than anyone else, and each of you will still be itching to check your phones to see if you’ve gotten a text, which is likely from someone far less interesting and important to you.”


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