Students: Social media blackout eye-opening, ‘annoying’

Harrisburg students admit to finding ways around the school's social media ban.
Harrisburg students admit to finding ways around the school's social media ban.

Students at Harrisburg University, where technology officials recently deprived students of social media access for one week, said the restriction was a minor inconvenience for many on campus, and showed some students just how tethered to popular social sites they had become.

IT decision makers at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania–a campus of about 600 students established in 2001–banned access to Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, and MySpace through the school’s network during the week of Sept. 13 as a way of showing students how ingrained the technology has become in their everyday lives.

Harrisburg also hosted a panel of social media experts during the experimental week who discussed privacy and security issues in social media, how the technology is used to communicate with mass audiences, and how the professional world has adapted to the exponential popularity of sites like Facebook.

Research has shown that the proliferation of Facebook and Twitter use does not impact student grades, but some Harrisburg students said the social media blackout created a much different classroom experience–one where students were not perusing Facebook without paying a shred of attention to their professor.

“I see a lot of student in class sit on Facebook the entire time, which I find surprising [because] they are paying for this education and just [using] Facebook the whole time,” said Jason Hyer, a Harrisburg senior and an intern in the university’s IT department.

Hyer said the social media blackout week was meant to be a “hurdle, not a complete block,” because any student or faculty member with a web-connected smart phone could circumvent the campus’s internet network and access the banned web sites.

The experiment, he said, raised awareness among students who may be unaware of how often they queued up their favorite social sites every day.

“The intention was to make students think why they are going through this trouble to get on” Facebook and Twitter, Hyer said.

Amanda Zuck, a junior at Harrisburg, said her initial reaction to the school’s social media blackout announcement could be summed up in one word: “Annoyance.”

“The first few days it was a little frustrating not having [access] to social media,” said Zuck, 20, adding that the social media ban forced her to change her well-rehearsed Facebook-updating habits. “I frequently went to Facebook or to look at my IM only to remember that it wasn’t available … but as the week progressed I learned to deal with it and just check it before I left home or after I got home.”

Zuck said she worked around Harrisburg’s social media ban once during the experimental week when she used a friend’s laptop that had access to a private network and updated her Facebook status. Still, having to make such drastic efforts to log onto Facebook, she said, showed students how distracting the ever-present web sites have become.

“You can tell the good students who really care and want to learn by how little they are on Facebook in class,” Zuck said.

Sherrie Madia, director of communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and coauthor of The Social Media Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business Exponentially with Social Media, said the student reaction to Harrisburg’s blackout should serve as a warning to educators and parents concerned about how students will adjust in the workplace.

“Is this how we want to send the next generation out into the world, beholden to social networks,” said Madia, a panelist in one of the social media discussions at Harrisburg during the blackout week, adding that employers won’t tolerate the several hours a day students spend on Facebook. “We should wonder why are they doing this in the first place. … And it creates enormous pressure on people because they like telling stories and being popular and sharing information, and it’s very hard to give that up.”

Madia said the Twitter and Facebook ban should be an alert to students whose social media usage has become detrimental to their grades and their personal relationships–the face-to-face kind, not the instant message variety.

“For those who are connected all the time, it’s somewhat frightening. It’s a feeling of being alone that’s terrifying for some people,” she said.

A study released in December 2009 showed that the nearly-universal usage of social media sites on campus has not created a subset of college students whose grades have plummeted with numerous daily updates for their online friends.

Students in a University of New Hampshire marketing research course surveyed more than 1,100 fellow students about their use of popular social media web sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and they found “no correlation between the amount of time students spend using social media and their grades.”

The student researchers classified light users of social media as respondents who spent less than 31 minutes every day on social networking sites. Heavy users, according to the study, spent more than an hour daily on social media sites.

Sixty-three percent of heavy users earned high grades–A’s and B’s–while 65 percent of light users received high marks.

“The study indicates that social media is being integrated with, rather than interfering with, students’ academic lives,” said Chuck Martin, a university adjunct professor whose marketing class conducted the study. “College students have grown up with social networks, and the study shows they are now simply part of how students interact with each other, with no apparent impact on grades.”

The New Hampshire research contradicted an Ohio State study showing students who reported checking status updates, joining fan groups, and chatting with friends on Facebook several times a day had a GPA as much as a letter grade lower than their counterparts.

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