LAWRENCE — Many of us are glued to our social networks, checking numerous times a day to get the latest updates from our friends and family. For international students studying in the U.S., social media can be a vital link to their home country, helping them adjust not only to life in college but studying in a foreign land. A new University of Kansas study has found international students’ social media use is positively associated with their level of social adjustment but not with the amount of social support they receive.
Hyunjin Seo, assistant professor of journalism at KU, led a study that surveyed international students on their social media use and adjustment to college life in the United States.
“As social media facilitates communication with people in their home countries, it helps maintain that connection to home. We found a positive association with use of social media and their social adjustment in the U.S., even when demographic and social psychological characteristics are controlled for,” Seo said. “It tells us that, for these students, social media can play a positive role and help them feel they’re connected.”
Social media use was far from a cure-all however, as survey respondents reported their social media use did not relate to the amount of social support they received in their adopted country and institutions.
Seo, a former international student, authored the study with KU journalism doctoral students Ren-Whei Harn, Husain Ebrahim and University Scholar and business honors student José Aldana, the latter two international students as well. They will present their findings this summer at International Communication Association conference in Fukuoka, Japan.
The timing for the study was appropriate: According to a recent report by the Institute of International Education, the number of international students in the U.S. reached 975,000. That was nearly a 10 percent increase from the previous year and the highest rate of growth in 35 years.
The researchers conducted focus groups and conducted an online survey of international students from many different countries enrolled in a large, Midwestern university. The majority of the students came from China, followed by India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, a sample that is in line with the overall composition of international students across the United States.
All of the students used some form of social media, with Facebook, the world’s most widely used social network, being the most common. Others included Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and regionally popular versions such as WeChat, which is popular in China where Facebook is not allowed, and WhatsApp.
While use of social media was positively associated with the students’ social adjustment, it was not associated with their perceived level of social support. Students largely reported that they did not discuss personal problems on social media for a number of cultural reasons. Often, they didn’t know how complaints or discussion of problems would be culturally perceived in their adopted country. Others reported they did not want to discuss things such as relationship problems on social media because their parents might potentially see them and worry.
International students largely reported that social media helped them connect with friends, both American and especially with friends from their home countries who are also studying in the United States. They also reported social media was helpful in connecting with students who were from cultures similar to their own. That finding is especially significant as numerous studies have shown that loneliness can be a leading cause of stress among college students, which can lead to a variety of problems, including homesickness and academic trouble.
“They felt that other international students understand the specific challenges they face. It helped them understand these are not challenges they face alone,” Seo said. “In helping reduce loneliness, social media was helpful.”
The fact that students didn’t perceive they received significant social support via social media could be an indicator colleges and universities can do more to support an ever-growing part of their student body. Whether it be providing more information about their schools, services provided, cultural support or resources offered, universities could use social media as a way to reach and support international students.
“This study shows social media is an important platform in international students being able to adjust to college life,” Seo said. “Institutions could use this in many ways such as having student ambassadors be more prudent and active in engaging international students on social media platforms or connecting alumni with prospective international students. Higher ed institutions sometimes tend to lag behind in technology use to communicate with young adults. College students are constantly adapting new technologies and features. Higher ed should understand where students communicate with their peers and where they get information on potential colleges, then be present there and share substantive information.”