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How Social Media Helps Students Adapt to College

For today’s students, social media isn’t just a diversion. It’s a support system.

That’s the key finding of a paper exploring the role that Facebook plays in helping students adjust to campus life. Collin M. Ruud, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented the paper, “Social Networking and Social Support: Does It Play a Role in College Social Integration?,” on Sunday at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting.

Mr. Ruud has been observing the effects of social media for years. He was an assistant residence-hall manager when social-networking sites first started to take off, and he was immediately interested in how they might affect student development.

For his recent research, Mr. Ruud conducted online surveys, collecting 159 responses from undergraduates at an unnamed flagship university in the Midwest. He identified a strong link between social-media use and feelings of belonging to the broader campus community.

Mr. Ruud found, as he expected, that students today spend more time on Facebook than they did in 2007, and that more students have made Facebook part of their daily routines. “It’s just part of what we do now,” he said.

But there was a more surprising finding, too: Students who used Facebook to keep in touch with high-school friends reported feeling stronger connections to their college communities. Mr. Ruud said he’d had a feeling there might be a link there. When he got the numbers to back up that hunch, “it was like an alarm going off,” he said.

On its face, Mr. Ruud said, it makes no sense that students feel more connected to their colleges when they continue to interact with friends from high school. But look closer, he said, and there’s a logic to that link. Facebook acts as a support network for students. A virtual network can help college students bond with high-school friends who are going through the same process of adapting to life on other campuses, Mr. Ruud said. With social media, all a student has to do to feel supported is log in.

Now that Facebook has become so ingrained in daily life, Mr. Ruud said, he’s curious to see what the broader implications will be. “We’ve got all these student-development theories,” he said. “Is technology going to change the way students develop socially?”

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