For many young people, college has come to represent a time of change- a transition to independence. With a university campus comes a new environment, packed with new friends, peers, clubs, activities and so forth. Really, it can represent a fresh start. That is, if you're not on Facebook.
Millions of college students log onto the social networking sensation on a regular basis. But that decision might have some unforeseen consequences. For students in a new university setting, that pre-existing online presence can end up being about as heavy as the coming semester's workload.
According to a new study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln communications PhD students Amanda Holman and Jenna Stephenson-Abetz , students might find themselves unpacking a whole lot more than their belongings when arriving at a new university.
"When you leave home, home comes with you when you go to college now because of Facebook," Holman said. "Because of the web, it's hard to separate the two."
As students have begun to develop relationships in their new environment, they are also forced to maintain a past identity on Facebook that is appropriate to friends, family and other people from back home. Typically, watchful eyes are still monitoring the student, and how they're behaving while away from home.
"They go away to college and they want to reinvent themselves. They want to bring on this new identity," explained Holman. "You know, I want to show who I am, be who I am.' But at the same time, they didn't want their people back home from high school, their parents and grandparents, to think that they changed too much. They want to preserve the values that they come from. They want people to know that they're having fun and that they're doing things but they also want to preserve this person they were back in high school and this person they are in their families."
According to Stephenson-Abetz, it has become a conflict of balancing the two identities, particularly when a student still has the desire to maintain the safety net of home.
"So you're at once reaching out for this new, emergent identity, while also holding safely onto the security of an old identity. But the hard part was not in figuring out which image would gain approval, but rather how to have their Facebook communication conform to all these various, and often contradictory expectations of all the different people in their relational lives," said Stephenson-Abetz.
And conforming to both identities has been more difficult for some than others. In one of the accounts in the study, a student discussed the challenges of being openly gay on campus, while still maintaining the identity of being heterosexual to his hometown friends and family on the site. That conflict intensified when the student entered a relationship while at college, and felt pressure from his partner to acknowledge their relationship status on the site.
So Facebook has become a sort of double-edged sword for new students. It provides an interactive way to stay in touch with friends and family back home, while at the same time presenting the challenge of trying to fit into a new and eccentric environment like a college campus.
UNL freshman Goodie Harold has been down that road, and said he's had to tread lightly when it comes to balancing relationships on Facebook, especially after moving away from home.
"I'm actually from about an hour and a half away from here, down by Grand Island. There's a lot of stuff on there, especially with the recent changes on Facebook, that have made me along with other people I know kind of nervous about it," reflected Harold.
When asked if he was selective in putting content on the site for both his old relations and new college friends to see, Harold remarked:
"There's definitely a big difference there between the two. There's a different image from being here to being back at high school."
But others disagreed. Sophomore Mario Lopez shrugged off the notion. When asked if some of the content he posted might offend old relations as opposed to college ones, Lopez said:
"No not really. I'm usually really honest to everyone. So it's not a huge deal. Friends are friends."
Stephenson-Abetz and Holmans' study also discovered something else interesting. Facebook has become an effective tool for new students to search out information on fellow classmates, in order to get to know more about them; such as their hobbies and interests. It's a practice commonly referred to as "creeping" or "Facebook stalking." It's another way Facebook is changing the dynamic of communication for college students. In this regard however, participants of the study said it's helping break down the obstacles that often come with making new friends on campus. Stephenson-Abetz elaborated on that point:
"When you know what someone did over the weekend, or you know all these details about their lives and you see them in person and you say, Hey, what did you do over the weekend?'Even though you know what they did because you saw Oh I went to this birthday party, it's a sort of tension, not necessarily feeling dishonest, but as one participant said, It's sort of balancing between being interested and being a creeper, how do you balance that?' But all of them are interwoven," explained Stephenson Abetz.
The study has suggested that Facebook is changing the college experience. That might not necessarily be a bad thing. Holman said that if anything, the social networking site has become a conduit for further human interaction.
"Students still want that face-to-face interaction and Facebook assists them in that," Holman said ."It allows them to meet more people and allows them to have more interpersonal relationships. It's not who they are, it's just part of a tool that they use."