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Students feel connection through social media, as well as addiction

In the middle of the girlish, boy-obsessed time of ninth grade, all Marisa Dietz wanted was a cellphone. She wanted to text cute boys and feel included. It was as if every person at school had one, except for her. So, when her mom — who really didn't believe in personal cellphones — finally caved before she turned 16, she could hardly handle it. She even got to go to the store and pick out her first phone, the latest in flip phones at the time.

"It was a big deal," Dietz said. "A life-changing moment."

At a time when it isn't unusual for pre-teens and teens to be seen toting around their own smartphones, iPads and other gadgets, the issue of addiction and serious attachment to smart devices and social media is growing across the entire spectrum of age groups.

Today, 98 percent of college students own a digital device, and 38 percent say they can't go for more than 10 minutes without using one, according to statistics compiled and reported by the Education Database Online. Success and well-being for those pursuing higher education often depends on the technology they have access to, especially as technology changes education at an ever-faster rate.

Education technology

"Everything at BYU-Idaho is online, so if I didn't have this technology I wouldn't be able to do anything," said Dietz, a sophomore studying elementary education. "And now with education, everything is going into technology and you kind of need to know how (to use it) and have the technology to do homework."

For the majority of students, technology is not only necessary to perform everyday tasks but is also a necessity in their studies. Three out of four students say they would not be able to study without technology, and 46 percent say they would be more likely to do reading assignments if they were available digitally, according to the Education Database.

Though the average time a student spends a day emailing is considerably lower — 58.68 minutes a day — than time spent using other forms of media, 91 percent of students say they use email to receive additional help from their teachers outside of the classroom.

The study doesn't show whether extra help sought via email leads to better grades for students. However, "students in classes that use Twitter to increase engagement have been found to average five grade points higher than those in normal classes," the Education Database reported.

It's a double-edged sword, however. As Dietz works on becoming a teacher, she is learning more of the negative affects technology can have in the classroom.

"I've been reading studies on how technology affects you and your schoolwork," Dietz said. "Often technology becomes really unhealthy and distracts from the purpose and work ethic."

Technology addiction

A series of questions was developed by researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway to indicate addiction to Facebook, and they were tested in a study with more than 400 college students, in April of this year. The study indicated that younger users are more likely to be addicted, along with women and those with poor sleep habits.

"We also found that people who are anxious and socially insecure use Facebook more ... probably because those who are anxious find it easier to communicate via social media than face-to-face," Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen, the study author and a psychologist at the university, said in a written statement.

A study was conducted in April 2011 with 1,000 students from all over the globe, to study the dependency of media. Each student was asked to give up every type of media for 24 hours and then record their experiences. The study was done by the University of Maryland's International Center for Media & the Public Affairs (ICMPA), and drastic results were discovered.

"Media is my drug; without it I was lost," one participant reported. "How could I survive 24 hours without it?"

Another said, "I hope that I never again have such a day in my life." A third added, "The feeling of nothing passed into my heart. … I felt like I had lost something important."

The overall finding from the study was that if a person is under the age of 25, they are most likely addicted to some type of media, no matter where in the world they are.

Relief and calm are the feelings that come to mind when Dietz thinks of having no technology for 24 hours.

"I actually would like it a lot better. I like having one of those days not having the Internet," Dietz said. "It would be a nice break from everything. But I'm not addicted to my phone, so I wouldn't die without it."

A project similar to ICMPA's was conducted in 2010 at the University of Maryland, but was done with 200 students at the university. The results: Many of the students reported not only being bored without something to be plugged into, but how they are "clearly addicted, and the dependency is sickening," as one student put it in a response.

For many students, the need wasn't always to be plugged in to avoid boredom or feel as if they are doing something productive — it had more to do with being connected with other people, whether those people were near or far.

"What they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook mean that they couldn't connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away," Susan Moeller, project director and journalism professor at the university said about the project.

The most disconcerting finding from these studies was the large number of students who experienced symptoms similar to those from drug and alcohol withdrawal, the Education Database said.

Addiction or habit

"I definitely would say I have a habit of getting on my phone when I have a spare moment, when I'm going from class to class I'm on my phone," Dietz said. She gets on Facebook and Instagram to see what her friends are up to, not to post her own material. "Mine is more of a habit because it's there for when I have a spare moment, that's when I'll get on."

To Preston Parker, it isn't always about addiction; to him there is addiction and habit.

"I have specific ways to view addiction and habits, you can be positive and negative with habits," Parker, who teaches social media classes at Utah State University, said. "Addictions, to me, are always bad. You've given your agency to that thing you are addicted to … I think it's a bad thing to be addicted to social media."

You can have good habits in media, Parker said. To him, positive use of social media focuses on online reputation management.

"You can never control the message sent online, but you can monitor and manage your reputation — individually or as an organization," Parker said. "Social media is the quickest and easiest way to manage your online reputation."

Reputation management is one of the main concepts Parker tries to teach his students. By knowing of any existing reputation and receiving notifications of any new posts, the subject can respond almost in real time, Parker said.

He also wants to instill in his students that this kind of social media use can make them more efficient and effective, he said.

Parker believes there's a strong minority of students who are addicted to social media, though he thinks the majority are not and that many students use social media in a healthy way.

"They feel more connected when something is in print; that means more than when you turn and talk to a person one-on-one," Parker said of the phenomenon of social media being used between people who are physically next to each other. "If you upload something on Twitter and hashtag or @ them, or tag them on Facebook, then now you are telling the whole world. You are announcing that relationship to the whole world."

Among adults, 66 percent who are online say they use some type of social media — Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn — according to a report by The Pew Research Center. The study also found that about two-thirds of social media users are users in large part to stay in touch with friends and family.