Today’s Christian college students are spending large amounts of time on Facebook. That’s in addition to other forms of social media such as video games, blogs, email and Internet browsing. A new and unprecedented study by Bryan Auday, professor of psychology, and Sybil Coleman, professor of social work, explores these trends and their implications. The study “Pulling Off the Mask: The Impact of Social Networking Activities on Evangelical Christian College Students” has received significant media attention. STILLPOINT interviewed Professors Auday and Coleman about their work.
STILLPOINT: How did you become involved in this project?
Sybil Coleman: You hear a male student speak with some concern in his voice of the hours he and his friends spend playing computer games each day; a female student responds that she can’t seem to step away from Facebook, and soon three or four hours have passed between Facebook and YouTube. Another student says her biggest problem is feeling the need to reply to all her text messages immediately, and then she feels the need to share some of the information she gets with other friends; and it’s “just so hard to stop!”
Hearing such comments sounded an alarm to the possibility that the amount of time students devote to electronic activities—for example, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, texting, video games, etc.—might significantly impact their academic performance, personal relationships, self-esteem, emotional well-being and spiritual health.
This question led to a sabbatical proposal for both of us, which included a research survey to determine the extent of electronic usage on campuses and to identify what might be helpful for students as they try to bring a balance to excessive time spent on electronic devices.
Bryan Auday: Since I am a trained experimental psychologist with little clinical training, I jumped at the opportunity to work with Professor Coleman, who is a skilled clinical practitioner. We used an online confidential questionnaire given to 1,342 students from four evangelical Christian colleges in the U.S.
STILLPOINT: What did the study reveal about the students’ use of electronic social networking media?
Auday: The most frequently visited site by far was Facebook, with approximately 93 percent having used it. Over one-third of the students reported using it between one and two hours during an average day. Added to this was another 12 percent who use Facebook between two and four hours daily. An additional group of just over 3 percent could be viewed as compulsive users, reporting between four and seven or more hours of use daily. An estimate of the time students spend weekly in social networking activities was an average of 18.6 hours—the equivalent of a part-time job. We identified one group—16 percent—who spend approximately 31.5–49 hours or more each week networking.
Coleman: Young men in particular use online gaming as an outlet for the relief of stress while women are more likely to use social networking sites.
STILLPOINT: Is the overuse of social networking media an actual addiction?
Coleman: The nature of addiction is complex. The Social Work Dictionary defines addiction as “physiological and psychological dependence on a behavior or substance.” The literature suggests that an addiction generally starts with a good feeling experienced, or an escape from a reality that is unsatisfying or uncomfortable. For example, a student feels shy when she is out in public, but she finds communicating with people on Facebook quite comfortable—even exhilarating. In an addiction such as gambling the person feels such an adrenalin rush from winning that he finds it hard to stop. In both cases the individuals keep “using” so they can replicate that euphoric feeling. They are simultaneously relieving stress and feeling an emotional high.
One in five of the students surveyed reported they find it so rewarding it is difficult to stop. And after they read a definition for addiction as “any behavior you cannot stop, regardless of the consequences,” over 12 percent reported they believed they were addicted to some kind of electronic activity; another 9 percent said they were “unsure” if they were addicted.
STILLPOINT: How can a Christian worldview help us in thinking rightly about—and behaving rightly in—cyberspace?
Coleman: As Christians we have the freedom to discuss cyberspace as not just bad or good, but rather as an opportunity. As Douglas Groothius, in his 1997 book The Soul in Cyberspace states, we need to “understand the nature and function of cyberspace interactions in order to appraise rightly their significant worth and potential for the Christian cause and the culture at large.”
We have seen the dangers of cyberspace in how individuals can be drawn into its clutches in negative ways, but we have also recognized such positive opportunities as communicating with family far away; transmitting prayer concerns rapidly; of ready access to academic, medical, current world and local church information.
Yet Gregory Rawlins, computer science professor at Indiana University, cautions that “embodied fellowship is sometimes threatened by cyberspace technologies that obscure the realities of otherness” (Moths to the Flame: The Seduction of Computer Technology, 1997). The human spirit, like the body, will wither without tangible love, care and nurturance. As Groothius says, “When the flesh becomes data, it fails to dwell among us.”
How then are we to live? Matthew 25 speaks of the responsibility to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to visit the sick and imprisoned. The passion for serving others often develops and grows during late teen and young adult years. When excessive time is spent on social networking sites, gaming and other electronic devices, will there be fewer Christian students who eventually go to at-risk populations to bring peace and hope, to address issues of injustice, to share God’s love and salvation through Christ?
Paul’s letters are foundational to biblical theology—have inspired Christians for over 2,000 years—and are a fine example of an effective alternative to physical presence. However, even Paul speaks of his strong desire for personal contact with his Christian friends.
STILLPOINT: Did the students talk about how they try to curb the amount of time they spend using electronic products?
Auday: Some common themes that emerged from their responses entailed limiting the number of times they check their email or cell phone, or even turn their computer on. A strategy that has worked for many appears to be finding a spot to study—like in the library—to avoid being in front of their computer and being tempted to check their Facebook account. A number of students responded that they implement regular “fasts” from Facebook for a week or more at a time.
STILLPOINT: Where will your research go from here?
Auday: We’re recruiting more Christian colleges to participate in our study, as well as a sample of college students from other institutions. Since this is the first generation that has grown up with these electronic products, it’s important to track long-term impacts within the psychological, sociological and spiritual domains.
Sybil W. Coleman, M. Ed., M.S.W., joined the Gordon faculty in 1989, bringing with her 24 years of direct practice social work experience. Her primary teaching interests focus on the foundations of social work and social welfare as well as social work theories and practice with individuals, families and groups. She received the Distinguished Junior Faculty Award in 1995.