ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting: Empirical Study of UMass-Amherst Undergrad’s Facebook Profiles

The first session I attended on Wednesday, the final day of the ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting, was entitled “Too Much Information? An Empirical Study of Undergraduate Facebook Profiles.” Daniel Saunders, Shaun Jamieson, and Jordan Hale outlined the results of research they have conducted at the University of Massachusetts-Amhrest.

These gentlemen examined the profiles of 464 UMass undergraduates in March of 2006 to answer questions like: What proportion of UMass undergraduates have a profile? How do those students differ from those without profiles? What proportion of UMass undergraduates with Facebook accounts post contact information? What proportion have positive references to the university? What proportion have positive references to partying, drugs, and alcohol? Some results of their research:

  • 82% of UMass-Amherst undergrads had Facebook profiles
  • Women were more likely to have a photo of themselves in their “central profile,” one or more photo albums, and more photos (women averaged 81 photos vs. 30 for men); however, men were more likely (21%) than women (8%) to list their phone number
  • On-campus residents were more likely (63%) than off-campus residents (23%) to post address information
  • Over half (58%) posted some or all of their class schedule
  • 7% had central profile photos with a clear photo of alcohol/drinking with White students (71%) more likely to have references to alcohol than students of color (49%) and women (73%) more likely to reference alcohol than men (61%)
  • Women had more positive references to UMass-Amherst (2.2 on average) than men (1.5 on average)

As you can see by the research questions and the statistics presented above, there are similarities to a few previous studies. In particular, Jones & Soltren’s 2005 “Facebook: Threats to Privacy” and Watson, Smith, & Driver’s 2006 “Alcohol, Sex and Illegal Activities: An Analysis of Selected Facebook Central Photos in Fifty States” studies explored some similar themes. Jones & Soltren explored the amount and type of information Facebook users shared on their profiles whereas Watson, Smith, & Driver specifically examined the central photos of Facebook profiles. Aside from the obvious differences, the methodology of this research differed from those studies primarily in that it concentrated on students at only one institution. Although the details vary, the general results of this research do not seem to substantially differ from those older studies. In particular, the number of students with clear photos of alcohol or other substances in their central profile photo remained low in this research although the greater proportion of women than men with such photos differed from the Watson, Smith, & Driver study.

There appear to be two interesting facets to this research:

  1. The demographic differences – men v. women and White v. students of color – were very interesting. That students of different genders use Facebook differently is no surprise as we already know there are differences in how men and women typically employ CMC tools. The differences between White students and students of color, however, is very interesting and an area that I do not know has been researched or examined thoroughly. During the discussion after the initial presentation, I raised the point that those differences may be attributable to not only race or ethnicity but also socioeconomic status. In other words, students who have had lots of access to the Internet and technology throughout their youth will have a level of comfort and familiarity that those whose access has primarily or exclusively been at school or in libraries do not have. And those students are disproportionately students of color. That’s a very tentative hypothesis and we need to know more about how students of different backgrounds use Facebook and other tools. Further, we should not ever assume that all incoming students or even students already enrolled have the same levels of knowledge, comfort, or access – Digital Divide, Participation Gap, etc.
  2. Although we talked about the positive uses for Facebook in other sessions, this is the only research I know of (as if I know of all of it!) that specifically looked for positive mentions in students’ profiles. Further, the presenters stressed that role of Facebook in how institutions’ images are presented and perceived by others. The connection between Facebook and campus attitudes (i.e. social norming) was obvious to me but I missed the connection with institutional image. I suspect I failed to make that seemingly-obvious connection as the medium is completely outside of our control unlike, for example, MySpace where institutions can register an account and control it.

Some other interesting points raised in discussion:

  • Has the self-disclosure practiced on (and inherent in) Facebook led to an increase in any negative incidents such as stalking, assault, etc.? Some attendees were of the opinion that harassment had increased but I know of no relevant research.
  • As discussed in other sessions, the boundaries (or lack thereof) between students and staff on Facebook were discussed. This appears to be more of an issue for graduate students and new professionals (possibly due simply to their much higher usage rates than older staff). Are we doing enough to educate these young staff members about this tool and how to negotiate this shifting boundary? I suspect that we are not doing enough but I have felt the same about other advances in technology that new professionals bring with them into the profession such as instant messaging. We should be dealing with these issues holistically and intentfully rather than reactively dealing with each particular technology two years after it has been in use.
  • One attendee reported on a very successful self-created social networking tool at his campus. There was even some talk on his campus of moving away from e-mail as the official means of communication and using the social networking tool instead.
  • Similar to the concern about how students (and others) are portraying our institutions in Facebook, there apparently are some (parents and other non-Facebook users?) who appear to confuse Facebook with an institutionally-controlled and -approved service (“Why did you let him say that about my son/daughter?”). Yikes! I wonder if that was covered in the “Online Parent Course” session that was being presented at the same time by the University of Redlands…

ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting: Shaping the Facebook of Higher Ed

Another session I attended on Tuesday was one entitled “Shaping the ‘Facebook’ of Higher Education: Teaching Online Street-Smarts During New Student Orientation.” The session was presented by Staci Lynne Hersh and Sara Hinkle of New York University (NYU). Both work in orientation and they discussed how they have begun to integrate Facebook education into their education of both their student orientation leaders and their new students.

Informal surveys have shown that nearly all NYU students have when they show up on campus for their first orientation. The presenters also asserted that registering for and using Facebook is a “coming-of-age experience” but given that Facebook is now open to anyone with an e-mail address I have to wonder if that statement is true. Regardless, a balanced approach in educating students about Facebook and similar tools should be welcome, particularly given the relative newness of these tools and their many unrealized (and potentially long-lasting) implications.

There were two main parts of this session that differed from other Facebook sessions: the concentration on student employees and the educational session offered at NYU’s student orientation.

  1. Before offering an educational session during orientation, Hersh and Hinkle knew they had to ensure they were on (or close to) the same page as their student employees. Like most orientation programs, student employees play a huge role in NYU’s orientation program. One aspect of this interaction with the student employees was including clauses in the student employees’ applications and contracts related to their portrayal (profile) in Facebook and other services. Another aspect was an open discussion with the student employees about the institution’s concerns, including students’ privacy, safety, employability, and representation of the institution. Hersh and Hinkle initially experienced resistance from their student employees when broaching this topic similar to the “it’s our space – stay out!” message reported by other presenters and attendees.
  2. The educational program offered by NYU took place during orientation and was a voluntary session (presumably offered simultaneously as other sessions). The program features several hands-on activities intended to generate discussion and reflection, including analysis of several real Facebook profiles and an activity designed to make students aware how quickly initial judgments are formed.

As part of this session focused on student employees, including hiring and screening of student employee candidates, part of the discussion centered on how to use Facebook in those processes. The presenters stressed that administrators who are not on Facebook don’t even know what their current student leaders’ profiles look like. Personally, I was not very pleased with the discussion of this particular facet of this issue as there are definitely legal considerations related to this and I’m not sure if many of those making these decisions are equipped and trained to make them; there’s a good reason why the phrase “I Am Not A Lawyer” is used so often in discussions on the Internet that the abbreviation IANAL has entered the common lexicon. One attendee (at this session, I think – I could be getting confused with another Facebook-related session) even raised the point that a student who feels that they did not get a job because they were discriminated against because of something in their profile could sue. That there are often many pieces of information in social networking user profiles that employers are prohibited from using in their employment decisions (age, ethnicity, race, etc.) is an excellent observation and a consideration for anyone who hires students as well as a consideration for students themselves.

While one attendee said that most (perhaps all) problems caused by students’ improper use of Facebook are already covered by existing policies, another attendee (perhaps the same one – my notes are not clear) asked if NYU had a policy prohibiting electronic misrepresentation. It was an excellent question and one that goes beyond Facebook and reaches what seems to me to be a core principle of honesty applicable in many general situations.

Anecdotes shared by the presenters and attendees revealed some inconsistencies and shortcomings in the experience and developmental levels of incoming students. While some students express disbelief about the idea that administrators and employers (i.e. non-peers) can and do view students’ profiles, others share their profiles openly and “friend” administrators in one moment and post incriminating information (such as photos of themselves drinking in the same profile that has their underaged-birthdate) in the next.

Additional observations:

  • The common thread of “there are positive uses and we can’t lose sight of them!” ran through this session.
  • Are privacy settings really effective in a physically close-knit community (i.e. I surely know someone with whom your friends so I can just ask them to show me your profile)?
  • One attendee related how she not only checks her high-school-aged daughter’s Facebook account but she also Googles her daughter to see what other information is out there. She then deals with what she finds in an educational manner rather than a confrontation followed by demands. What a Mom!
  • Scribbled at the bottom of my notes on this session: “We’re too damned focused on this one service!”

ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting: Facebook & Student Involvement

The first session I attended on Tuesday morning was entitled “Have You Facebooked Astin Lately? Facebook’s Impact on Student Involvement” and it was presented by Ruth Harper and Greg Heiberger of South Dakota State University (SDSU). Greg actually did all of the presenting and I’m not sure why Ruth was included in the program (Give it more credibility since she has a doctorate? Change of plans since the program proposals are due many months before the conference itself?). Given the title and the implied connection between student development theory and Facebook, I was very excited to attend this session. It met expectations and was a great session.

Heiberger is a Student Activities administrator and Master’s student who has conducted original research at SDSU about students’ use of Facebook in relation to their involvement in student activities. Given his role in Student Activities, Heiberger focused on student involvement and related his Facebook research to Astin’s Involvement Theory and Tinto’s Departure Theory. In short, his concentration seems to be on questions like: “Is involvement increasing or decreasing? Or just changing form?”

His survey had 375 unique respondents and asked 20 questions with the eventual goal of longitudinal research. Some results of the survey include:

  • 98% of respondents log in daily (contrast with 31% who use the SDSU MyStateonline portal each day)
  • Respondents spend an average of 1-2 hours each day on Facebook
  • Respondents log in to Facebook an average of 5 times each day, personal e-mail 3 times per day, and institutional e-mail 1 time per day
  • The number of logins positively correlates with the number of student organizations in which respondents reported they are active

This survey included some demographic data such as GPA but did not find a correlation between GPA and time spent on Facebook. However, Vanden Boogart did find a negative correlation between these factors in his research. Why did these two research efforts reach different conclusions? The major differences between them are (a) Vanden Boogart surveyed students at multiple campuses whereas Heiberger focused on one campus and (b) Heiberger performed his research more recently than Vanden Boogart. Therefore it’s possible that the difference is simply the difference between students at different campuses. More interestingly, however, is that we may be seeing an effect similar to that observed in the classic Internet Paradox and Internet Paradox Revisited papers: some negative effects of technology dissipate with time as users become more familiar with it. Like most things, this all requires more research and investigation.

There was a brief digression into a discussion of the role that Facebook and related education may play in the larger area of information literacy. Although the term “information literacy” was not used, it was the topic of conversation and another example of the language barriers between professions (in this case, student affairs and information science). The observation that there is a tie between the focused education in the area of Facebook (which is sometimes too narrowly focused, IMHO) and the larger topic of information literacy is an excellent observation and one deserving of further exploration.

In many discussions about Facebook, the students’ perception that “Facebook is our space” and staff are not welcome was noted. However, one attendee pointed out that this perception may change as new students enter our institutions who have grown up with increased parental and institutional awareness of and presence in Facebook and similar tools.

Other excellent quotes, questions, and examples (all quotes are from Heiberger unless otherwise noted):

  • “As responsible administrators, we are obligated to assess and evaluate technology and its effects on student development.”
  • “We must either assist in making it a positive developmental experience or risk its effects on our recruitment and retention rates and ultimately higher education’s value.” While I understand the point of this statement, it seems a bit extreme to me. There are many things that students do that we do not and should not “assist” or become involved with for ethical, practical, or legal reasons. Let’s not allow our zeal to care for and assist students to draw us into a parental, controlling, or protective role.
  • A student contacted Heiberger via Facebook, and only via Facebook, to inquire about starting a new student organization. This a curious mixture of contexts and crossing of boundaries (explicit student use of a “student-only” medium for performing an administrative function/process).
  • Students who “friend” staff members (including student staff members) may find themselves in unique and potentially uncomfortable situations as much of what they do is visible or even broadcast to their friends. One potential benefit, however, is the opportunity for the staff person to model proper behavior. The potential conflict of interest caused by students and staff “friending” one another was raised in multiple sessions throughout the conference, particularly in the context of student staff, graduate students, and new staff.
  • Do students (or users in general) use the number of friends, groups, messages, photos, etc. as a measure of status or self-worth? I think there may be some relevant research out there, particularly in the teen/MySpace arena and the placement of one’s Top 8 friends, but I can’t seem to recall the exact article(s)…
  • Does any institution use Facebook as a reflective tool? (Attendees at this session did not answer this question but in a different session a psychologist explained how she uses Facebook in group therapy sessions.)
  • Are there a significant number of students who belong to Facebook groups but have low participation rates in the physical group (don’t attend meetings, participate in activities, etc.)? Attendees claimed to know such students but no one (including myself) knew of any relevant research.
  • If we assume that our efforts to use Facebook to advertise events are successful, are participation rates increasing, too?

It seems to me that there were two dominant themes throughout this presentation and the subsequent discussion:

  1. The role of Facebook in student involvement and the changing nature of involvement itself. For example, Heiberger said that Facebook’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Pool was an example of “engaging across the country versus across the room.” Although many university and college administrators and student employees are using Facebook and similar tools to advertise campus events and communicate with students and student groups, the larger questions of the changing nature of involvement and engagement must be asked and Heiberger and others performing research in that area are doing very interesting and necessary work.
  2. Despite the negative media attention (much of it generated by student affairs and higher education, IMHO), there are many positive uses for Facebook and similar tools. In this session and in others, there was a pushback not just from the presenter but from attendees against the negative stereotypes and a call to recognize the potential for healthy, good, and productive uses of these tools.

Update: Ruth contacted me a few weeks ago to clarify her role in Greg’s research and presentation.  She was the faculty member that supervised Greg’s research and helped put together the conference proposal.  She told me that it’s standard practice at South Dakota State University for supervising faculty members signing on as the “coordinating presenter” for grad student presentations.  Thanks for the clarification Ruth!

Education Without Fear

Last week, the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee held their 10th State of the Net Conference. C-SPAN has available on their website a recording of one of the panel discussions entitled “Child Safety on Web 2.0: Who Should Protect Our Kids?” The panel was extremely interesting and although much of the discussion centered on child pornography it was extremely well-reasoned and covered other topics with insight and wisdom.

The panelists included:

  • Anne Collier, Co-director of BlogSafety.com
  • Chuck Cosson, Microsoft’s Public Policy Counsel
  • Tim Lordan, Executive Director of the Internet Education Foundation & panel moderator
  • Mark McCarthy, Visa’s Senior Vice President for Public Policy
  • Margaret Moran, UK Member of Parliament (Labour)
  • Adam Thierer, Director of the Progress & Freedom Center’s Center for Digital Media

As often seems to be the case, the questions from the audience seemed to draw together many of the threads discussed throughout the panel. Allow me to summarize the responses to one particular question to give you a flavor for the discussions: How would you grade congress and administration on their Internet child safety efforts? Adam replied that he would give them a C or D as their efforts are not about education and parental empowerment. Chuck, however, noted that Microsoft is happy when lawmakers even think of this issue. Some federal bills have been good and states have significant opportunities (Virginia was mentioned a few times throughout the panel as particularly good in these areas). Margaret reiterated her main point that legislation must be accompanied, preceded, or even co-opted by governmental collaboration with industry and NGOs. This is apparently an effort she has led in the UK. Mark agreed with Margaret about industry collaboration being key but added that legislation is not always needed but legislative interest is extremely important.

Between the lengthy opening remarks, discussion, and question-and-answer session, many of the major topics in this area were covered: ISP and OS vendor efforts, parental responsibilities, government and industry collaboration, and the ethics and legalities of monitoring Internet users and children. A few of the highlights included:

  • A few of the panelists referenced Youth, Pornography, and the Internet,” a 2000 publication by the Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content of the National Research Council. In particular, the following idea (paraphrased here and attributed to Dick Thornburgh) was discussed and presented as a model: Although we can erect fences and put up gates around swimming pools, the best way we can protect children from drowning is to teach them how to swim. Adam quickly linked this notion of “teaching our children how to swim” with media literacy and how it is or is not being taught to children. This is a current topic of discussion among some educators and the focus of current research.
  • A panelist (our guest from the UK, I think) said that we must puruse “education without fear.” That is precisely the concept I believe we must promote in higher education as we try to educate one another and our students about Internet issues such as social networking, privacy, ethics, and online interactions. Although the particular phrase “education without fear” seems to be related to an educational movement to eliminate corporal punishment in schools we should hold it in our minds and hearts as I believe it applies directly to these educational efforts.

Those ideas, arming one another and our students with knowledge without sensationalizing or overblowing the potential dangers, are precisely the ones we should be pursuing in higher education. I would recommend anyone interested in these ideas, Internet safety, and the interplay between government and industry watch this video. I was very impressed with each of the panelists and their interactions. Further, many of their ideas are spot on and ones from which we can learn and on which we can build.

Discussion of and Reactions to NCSU’s “The Facebook Phenomenon”

Yesterday’s “The Facebook Phenomenon” panel discussion presented by North Carolina State University was fantastic! The webcast and related materials are available online for those who missed it. They’ve also started a Facebook group sharing the name of the discussion for those interested in continuing the discussion in Facebook itself.

The discussion and the supporting materials were excellently organized and we should all thank NCSU staff for their generous work in providing this professional development opportunity. The discussion was good and the question-and-answer session was great. However, I was a bit disappointed by some of the answers (or lack thereof). On one hand, I (like many others, I am sure) was hoping that the panel would have answers to all of our questions; they didn’t. On the other hand, it’s comforting (and a tiny bit disappointing) that we’re all searching for answers and almost all of us are in the same place. That the panelists could not answer many questions posed is not indicative of ignorance on the part of the panelists. They were asked tough questions about an emerging phenomenon and I don’t think that anyone could have answered many of the questions.

The most disappointing aspect of the panel was the consistent reference to personal anecdotes without sufficient reference to applicable research. I offer this criticism as a student affairs professional looking inward at his own profession and thus this criticism is aimed less at this particular panel or its participants and more at the profession as a whole. Fred Stutzman, of course, had his own research to draw upon but even much of that has been limited to the students at his institution. The one specific reference I recall to more wide-ranging research was Sarah Noell’s reference to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study of teen Internet use. As I’ve discussed before, there appears to be a real need to bridge the gap between researchers who are active in this field and student affairs practitioners and administrators. It’s great that many people were introduced to Fred’s research but what about boyd, Ellison, and other researchers’ work in this and very closely related fields? (I note that the list of resources on NCSU’s website is still growing; they appear to be finding more of this work and posting links to it which is great!)

The administrators on the panel didn’t seem to speak much about the ethics of administrators viewing Facebook profiles. They certainly have the legal right but they seemed to completely brush off ethical and privacy concerns. Such an apparently casual dismissal of a very serious concern in the minds of many students seems to be a bit callous and out-of-touch with student culture. It’s a difficult subject that merits more consideration and a more considered and sensitive approach than “we’re legally allowed to do it and that’s that.”

There also appeared to be an unchallenged assumption that 95%+ student are using Facebook. Although Fred’s research supports that finding for the groups he has studied, other studies have found lower rates of participation. In particular, the ECAR’s 2006 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, which surveyed nearly 29,000 students at 96 different institutions, found that “more than 70% [of respondents] use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.” Since there appears to be a significant range in the research, uncritical acceptance of one set of findings strikes me as a bit odd.

As noted by Sarah Stein, institutional policies should encompass students, faculty, and staff. Although that sounds obvious, it’s a point that I tend to forget or gloss over. Each of these constituents has a different purpose for wanting to use and interact with others using Facebook and similar services. While I’m sure that there are similarities between these groups’ uses and intents there are obviously many differences, not the least of which are the different legal and ethical issues involved. For example, some of the panelists briefly discussed FERPA and the difference between institutions posting students’ personal information on Facebook (as apparently happened when a professor tried to place some course-related materials on Facebook) and students posting their own personal information.

Some specific reactions to or notes about the panelists’ opening remarks (I am omitting Fred Stutzman as I have referenced and will certainly continue to write about his work; his opening remarks were a summary of his work):

  • Sarah Noell expects Facebook to develop increasing granularity in its privacy controls in the future as it “matures.” I think that is a valid opinion and I expect that Facebook will continue to explore that area but I don’t know if it will yield much fruit; increased granularity would significantly increase complexity. At a certain point, and I don’t know where that tipping point is, the complexity of a tool outweighs its functionality. Privacy controls in a system that attempts to mimic or match offline social interactions, boundaries, contexts, etc. can very quickly grow too complex to be understood or used.
  • Paul Cousins seemed to indicate that he believes that Facebook is used primarily to forge new connections. I could be mistaken in my understanding of his perception but I have encountered that perception in other student affairs professionals. This perception is counter to some research (Ellison and Vanden Boogart jump to mind) that shows that Facebook is typically used to reinforce existing relationships. This point was one to which panelists returned a few times so I don’t know exactly how closely the perceptions match the published research.
  • Sarah Stein mentioned ETS’ new Information and Communication Technology Literacy Assessment as evidence of students’ lack of technical and information literacy. While I agree with her general point, I’m not sure that ETS’ test is the best evidence as its methodology was soundly and fairly criticized. Dr. Stein also mentioned GIS and the integration of spatial location with social networking as a future development but did not mention the obvious (to me) privacy concerns raised by such integration. Another panelist (Fred, I think) mentioned that MIT is already actively exploring this concept.
  • Whil Plavis, the lone student on the panel, briefly discussed students who choose to protect their privacy by not using Facebook. Dr. Stein later echoed this sentiment by reminding the audience that there are and always will be people who opt out of such systems.

In my opinion, the lengthy question and answer that followed the opening remarks was the most informative and enjoyable part of the discussion. The organizers of the panel very wisely chose to allot the majority of the time to this portion of the discussion and were very adept at alternating between questions from the local, physical audience and the virtual audience.

Some of the questions included:

  • Are there (legal) discrimination issues if potential employers view someone’s profile early in the hiring process? I don’t think any panelist offered a good answer to this question. In their defense, it’s really a specific legal question and I am not sure if any of the panelists were qualified to speak about laws related to employment and discrimination. It’s a great question and definitely the kind of question we should be asking ourselves and one another!
  • A concerned parent in audience who regularly “checks out” her daughter’s online information (which is exactly what she should be doing and what many parents are not doing) asked: Are local public schools conducting education in this area? Sarah Stein replied “I don’t know” but that we should find out. She went on to stress that we should “stop making assumptions” about others’ technical literacy, an excellent point that I wish more people understood and proselytized
  • Another concerned mother asked: Do students who post personal and potentially dangerous information about location receive encouragement or discouragement from their friends? Whil responded that yes, there is some peer pressure associated with Facebook and personal information posted on it. He illustrated this with an anecdote about his younger brother whom Whil cautioned to “tone down” the personal information shared on his Facebook account.
  • A psychologist concerned with the level of personal contact that can achieved online asked: Are we losing skills in “[interpersonal relationships]?” Sarah Stein replied that previous and ongoing CMC research does not support such a conclusion. She also discussed a notion of “blended lives” that has persisted for many years where we our social lives are a mix of relationships and interactions conducted via many media. Whil noted that his profile is not for advertising to people but it’s there for those who want to find it. With respect to losing interpersonal skills, Whil noted that students often use Facebook as a convenient way to setup meetings and events.
  • Leslie Dare, the panel moderator, noted that Facebook privacy settings must be set by the user. Sarah Noell then asked, “Who is educating people about those features?”
  • What’s the future of Facebook? Is it a fad? Are we (universities) properly equipped to deal with it? Sarah Stein opined that Facebook might not stick around but social networking will. Fred agreed that Facebook might not stay but social networks will as they provide “high utility” and a “time saver tool.”
  • Are there long term issues about boundaries? Personal vs. impersonal vs. too much information (TMI)? Sarah Stein noted that this isn’t a new concern. Paul, however, countered that he believes that students are exchanging “intimacy for efficiency.” Fred parried with an assertion that we are social beings and he doesn’t worry about us losing our social networks. For example, Facebook connections are usually initiated offline. Leslie noted that some use Facebook to express and share grief
  • How do we educate parents about the risks? Sarah Noell indicated that NCSU did not mention this topic in the previous parent orientation but that information is on their website. It’s a difficult topic to address since many parents don’t know anything about it. Sarah Stein shared her hope that the presentation and education will be balanced (positive and negative) like this panel discussion.

Minnesota Survey of College Students’ Internet Use and Privacy Attitudes

The Minnesota Daily has conducted a survey of University of Minnesota students in which they asked students about Internet Use, Social Networking Websites and Associated Privacy Issues, Internet Identity, Internet Safety and Data Privacy, and The Internet and Participation. They have published at least one news story about the survey as well as some of the methodological details of the survey. While they don’t appear to have published the survey instrument, the published methodology seems to be relatively sound (as it should be since they contracted with the university’s Department of Survey Research). The “report” seems to be missing some details and sections (no “Discussion” section???); there are multiple versions of the report on their website, each longer than the last, so maybe they are publishing drafts of the report as they become available…?

A few of the notable findings:

  • Although nearly 1/3 of the respondents believed that “their Internet activities are anonymous….older participants were less likely to believe their Internet activities are anonymous.”
  • 85% of respondents have visited a social networking website and 73% are a member of at least one site with 63% members of Facebook, 32% members of MySpace, and 27% members of both.
  • When asked if it was a violation of privacy for employers or university administrators to find out more about or investigate students by viewing profiles and information on social networking sites, respondents’ opinions were split. However, most respondents do not view police using social networking sites to investigate crimes as a violation of privacy.
  • Just over half of respondents “trust online companies and organizations to keep information about them private,” nearly one quarter of respondents “say they feel safe making purchases online,” and 80% of respondents “are concerned that someone could steal their identity using personal information found on the Internet.”
  • 75% of respondents “say they would rather email a professor or TA than go to their office hours,” just over one-third believe that responding to e-mail “takes up too much of [their] time,” and nearly 40% would “prefer to confront someone about a problem via email rather than in person.”

The news article published by The Minnesota Daily touches on some of these findings. At least one of the quotes printed in the article, however, mentions an issue not explored in the survey itself. Specifically, an English professor interviewed for the article says, “Students send these e-mails in a very casual manner….They don’t put a lot of reflection into composing their questions or comments and typically the tone that students assume in e-mails is more appropriate to, say, corresponding with a friend than a professor.” Without analyzing additional research, I don’t know whether this is a issue unique to or more prevalent in younger persons; my feeling is that it is an issue that is more closely linked to those who use the medium regardless of age.

The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s The Wired Campus picked up this story (but not the survey report). Perhaps it’s a natural phenomenon that the “truths” in the survey report become changed and diluted as the information is passed from story to story (from the survey report to the Minnesota Daily article to the The Wired Campus…to this blog???) much like the childhood “Telephone Game.” The main message that seems to come across in The Wired Campus’ post is a dichotomy between “electronic communication” vs. “in-person communication.” Like many dichotomies, this one is false. I think the main problem is that the general question asking “would [you] rather email a professor or TA than go to their office hours?” lacks context. For what hypothetical purpose are the students being asked to email or visit the TA or professor? There may be a significant difference between a simple question and a more complex one. Other research has found that students do discern between media so perhaps some of them are simply choosing the appropriate medium to ask many questions.

The Daily Minnesota article notes a generational gap that extends not only between students and faculty but also older and younger faculty. Dr. Augst, a professor quoted several times by the Daily Minnesota who seems to have been interviewed as a representative of the older faculty, asserts that “any question can be more effectively answered in person.” Although I sympathize with his point of view I do not agree. Until I begin recording all conversations and transcribing them so I can later reproduce them on demand and search and sort them, e-mail will remain my medium of choice for some interactions.

In summary, many of the findings of this survey and the opinions expressed in the article are similar to those in other research. It’s clear that there are opinions and attitudes that change over time, either with experience or maturation, including realistic views of security and anonymity. However, there are also opinions and attitudes that may not change over time with choice of medium being a prominent example. While some of these opinions and attitudes are clearly incorrect and do not reflect reality (no matter how strongly you believe, you will not “believe” yourself into being secure or anonymous) others are just subjective opinions that are equally as valid as others.

Two Pew Research Studies About Teens and “Generation Next”

Two of the Pew research projects have recently released research documents.

The first document, a memo about ongoing research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is entitled “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview.” In the study, the researchers found that “more than half (55%) of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites…. [O]lder teens, particularly girls, are more likely to use these sites. For girls, social networking sites are primarily places to reinforce pre-existing friendships; for boys, the networks also provide opportunities for flirting and making new friends.” Rather than attempting to summarize this document myself, I defer to others more experienced in this field than I who have already produced excellent summaries and observations.

The second document is a report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press entitled “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics: A Portrait of ‘Generation Next.’” The summary of findings tells us that “the generation that came of age in the shadow of Sept. 11 shares the characteristics of other generations of young adults. They are generally happy with their lives and optimistic about their futures. Moreover, Gen Nexters feel that educational and job opportunities are better for them today than for the previous generation. At the same time, many of their attitudes and priorities reflect a limited set of life experiences. Marriage, children and an established career remain in the future for most of those in Generation Next.” There are certainly many findings that will be of interest to educators and student affairs professionals.

Among the interesting findings about “Generation Next” is that “about half say they sent or received a text message over the phone in the past day, approximately double the proportion of those ages 26-40.” Much of the research I have read has indicated that Americans have been slow to take up text messaging. I think it’s safe to say that, at least for the younger generations, this generalization is no longer true. In fact, it’s clear that text messaging is now in the mainstream for American youths.

One particular statement with which I take issue is that “they are the ‘Look at Me’ generation.” The researchers conclude this from their finding that “a majority of Gen Nexters have used…social networking sites, and more than four-in-ten have created a personal profile.” I certainly don’t dispute the finding. I do, however, dispute the characterization that implies narcissism and attention-seeking as the motivation for employing these tools. The researchers’ characterization of these tools reveals either a bias or a shallow understanding of these tools. It’s not that people who use those tools are necessarily seeking attention but that the nature of the tools requires one to explicitly identify yourself and a significant amount of information about yourself. Further, for the age group we are discussing these tools have reached a “critical mass” in that even those who don’t really care for the tools often find themselves using them.

Both of these documents are interesting and directly applicable for college and university administrators and educators, particularly the “Generation Next” report. It helps cut through the misconceptions and anecdotes to give us a scholarly and extremely interesting view of the current generation of American youths. As the working definition of Generation Next used by these researchers includes “those Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 years old,” these young people are the current generation of undergraduates. It’s essential to understand them not only as college and university students but also as Americans who are entering the workforce and voting booths.

Online Privacy: American Youth Get It (At Least In MySpace)

There has been, and continues to be, much discussion about online privacy in the context of youths and their use of social networking sites. Last year, this discussion led the House of Representatives to pass an ill-considered law in an effort to limit youths’ uncensored and unfiltered access to social networking sites (the bill was not voted on by the Senate and must be reintroduced in both houses of the 110th Congress). I don’t know if the paranoia is beginning to wear off but the research has been slowly building and, of course, it’s contrary to the common media portrayal.

First, let’s take a look at the assertion that the Internet, specifically MySpace, is full of pedophiles and criminals who prey on youth. Dr. Larry D. Rosen of California State University, Dominguez Hills has conducted research into this asserted phenomenon and found it largely to be overblown. I’m not going to repeat Larry’s but his work can be summarized as “there are much fewer criminals on the Internet preying on our children in MySpace than we believe, youth almost universally ‘blow off’ and ignore the few online solicitations or harassment they encounter, and parents need to play a stronger role in their children’s online lives” (my words, not his). That so many media sources picked up this research but still get the story wrong is quite disappointing.

Next, let’s look at research into how youth view online privacy. Contemporary beliefs are that youths, including young adults, have little understanding of online privacy and are apt to reveal personal information at the drop of a hat with potentially disastrous consequences (kidnapping, sexual assault, loss of a job or potential job, removal from school, etc.). We’ve discussed this perception before and now there is some more research that adds to the conversation. Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Sameer Hinduja, criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University, conducted research into adolescents’ use of MySpace that shows that “an overwhelming majority of adolescents are using the site responsibly.”

Now, let’s briefly compare these two two research efforts. Dr. Rosen’s research combined data from multiple sources and appears to utilize more qualitative data, including surveys of over 200 child-parent pairs. Drs. Patchin and Hinduja, on the other hand, reviewed the MySpace profiles of nearly 2,500 adolescent MySpace users. One interesting limitation from which both efforts suffer is that their adolescent respondents were self-reported as the surveys were conducted online or via telephone; we know there are problems with relying on MySpace users’ self-reported age. On the whole, the two efforts are very complementary and fill in different gaps in our knowledge. It is very interesting to see how different media are spinning the same data from the same researchers very differently. The USA Today story about Patchin and Hinduja’s research is entitled “Most teens are responsible online, study shows” and seems to stress that teens’ behavior is safe whereas the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s news releaseResearchers Find Most Teens Limit Personal Information on MySpace, But Some Youth Still at Risk” seems to stress the negative aspects of the story. I would have expected the viewpoints of the two sources to be reversed (but maybe it’s-all-okay stories from university researchers don’t help secure further research funding…).

I would like to see more qualitative data to explain the results from Patchin and Hinduja’s research as that seems to be a pretty big shortcoming in their methodology. More specifically, I’d like to know more about why these youths exhibit safe or unsafe behaviors – why are so many teens apt to shrug off sexual propositions? Is it because they’ve learned from the few, horrific incidents (real or imaginary) or is some education effective? What kinds of education are most effective, if any? How do these behaviors change over time (both within the particular age-group and as the same age-group grows older)?

In any case, I hope these researchers will continue to update their websites as they conduct more research or further explore the data. Dr. Larry Rosen’s webpage is at http://www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm and Drs. Patchin and Hinduja maintain Cyberbullying.us, an interesting website with information about “online bullying.”

I particularly like how Larry closed one of his research papers. Before issuing one last call for parental awareness and action, he reminds us that “For the most part, the kids really are ‘alright.'”

Differences between electronic identity stabilization of young adults and teens

Social media researcher danah boyd recently wrote that her research has revealed that many American teenagers “are not dreaming of portability…. They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles.” In other words, when they lose their account information, forget their password, or move on to a new service, they’re happy to start over and rebuild their “identity.” (boyd is quick to note, however, that this readiness to recreate one’s identity is very different from the notion of creating or maintaining multiple discrete identities i.e. one AIM screenname for your friends and family, a gmail account for your professional contacts, and a Facebook account for your college friends). boyd also shares some philosophical musings on what we “adults” can learn from these teens but let’s focus on identity and teens’ apparent willingness to change and start over. Let’s assume this observed trend of carefree electronic identity uptake and discard holds true for a large segment of the American teen population.

Do traditional college students exhibit this same behavior? In my experience, no. College students definitely exhibit many similar behaviors for many of the same reasons – developing and discovering their self-identity – but not this particular one. (Excellent overviews of identity development in traditional college students can be found in the standard references “Education and Identity” by Arthur W. Chickering and Linda Reisser and “How College Affects Students” by Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini.)

Assuming that is true and this behavior differs between teenagers and young adults (i.e. traditional college students), why? I offer a few hypotheses:

  1. Logistical and technical issues and concerns begin to try to “lock students down” to readily-identifiable, consistent, and up-to-date identities, locations, and addresses. Within the sphere of “official” or institution-supported services, there are many examples. Despite the fact that most students enter college with multiple e-mail addresses and about half of entering freshmen prefer an e-mail provider other than their institution, nearly all 4-year institutions continue to provide “universal student e-mail.” Although some services such as e-mail forwarding allow students to maintain changing, off-campus accounts and identities many systems and services can not. It should be obvious that for students to use services such as course management systems (a service about which many students are “overwhelmingly positive”), students must have and maintain stable accounts.
  2. As noted in “Education and Identity,” “stability and integration” are key concepts in identity development for traditional undergraduate college students. More specifically, for upper-level students “a higher level of personal organization and integration is also required for the transition from college to the adult world.” In other words, for one to be successful, most people find it necessary to stop losing and forgetting information. Sounds like common sense to me…
  3. (I have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) For the average person, attending college offers the chance to immensely expand one’s social network. This is partially an artifact of age (the longer one lives the more people one meets) but it’s also inherent in moving into a new environment with many new people. As one’s social network grows it simply becomes less practical to change contact information or visible identity (unless you’re explicitly trying to change or shrink your network). Again, please note that this differs from the deliberate maintenance of multiple identities.
  4. (I also have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) Similar to the previous hypothesis, one tends to accumulate more physical and logical “things” related to one’s public identity as one grows older. In the electronic world, those things may include photographs, graphics, webpage links, quotes, lists of “favorites,” and, critical to most social networking sites, visible links to other social contacts (typically labeled “friends” but we all know that label lacks nuance). Unless one intends to start a new identity, moving all (or enough) of that information to a new location takes time, effort, and, in some cases, technical skill and knowledge. And some of those things can not be easily moved or moved at all, particularly one’s social network (“friends”). While that may be seen as an advantage for someone wanting to “start over” (which is often the case for those who, like many teenagers, are intentionally experimenting with their identity) for many people it’s a huge disincentive to move to a new location/service/etc.

On the one hand, we know that identity development is a gradual process. I am by no means suggesting that when one steps foot onto campus for freshman orientation the habits and practices of youth are left lying outside the gate like old clothes; that is contrary to experience and research. However, I do suggest that several factors conspire to make this particular transition rather swift as compared to many other transitions one experiences as a young adult. Not only are there significant technical and logistical pressures that slow or halt one’s rapid uptake and discard of electronic identities but maturation tends to lead to identity stabilization in an almost tautological manner.

Using Social Networking Tools to Communicate and Interact with Students

Given students’ (perhaps unwarranted) expectations of privacy and boundaries, should college and university administrators use social networking sites to communicate and interact with students? If the answer is “yes,” how can we effectively and ethically use those tools and interact with students (and others) in those spaces?

There aren’t easy answers to either of those questions. Further, those two questions are intimately intertwined and very difficult or impossible to consider separately. Let’s explore a few issues and resources recently written about those issues that may offer some answers and provide guidance.

First is a recent post to the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative Spotlight blog. The piece was written by folks with Global Kids who work within Teen Second Life. It’s centered on a few brief comments from teens explaining their view of (the Global Kids) adults’ presence in Teen Second Life. I don’t know how representative the views expressed are of the views of teens at large or even just the teens who use Teen Second Life. There also arises the question of how or if one can extrapolate those views from Teen Second Life and its participants to the teen population at large and its participants in social networking services.

Second is another discussion of users’ (false?) expectation of privacy and the perceived erosion of privacy on the Internet. This small part of a much longer and ongoing discussion began with a blog post entitled “Social network users have ruined their privacy, forever.” The post was also linked to from Slashdot where the discussion continued. While I am not familiar with the website on which the original post was written or its author, it’s clearly an emotionally-charged opinion piece. Stripped of the hyperbole and vitriol, the basic gist of the article is one that is a real concern for many people and one with which many student affairs administrators are familiar: some people have an unrealistic expectation of privacy when posting information on the Internet. Although this expectation is clearly unwarranted, those using social networking services to interact with or “reach” traditional college students should bear this expectation in mind. Even if the expectation is groundless, violating it wins no points with those who hold it.

(I don’t know how much and how quickly these expectations of privacy are changing. My feeling is that these expectations are, at least in the very public arenas where the expectations are clearly unwarranted, changing rapidly and are not held by most college-aged persons. However, I do not know if these realistic expectations extend to all Internet activity or just to the most visible ones. In other words, I don’t know if the general lack of privacy in most Internet transactions and activity is apparent to most people or if they limit that awareness to specific activities. My sense is the latter. In all honesty, I don’t even know if the original assumption that people expect “privacy” in all of their Internet activities is valid and proven, even among the young.  It seems reasonable but it’s an assumption.)

Putting together these discussions and observations one is led to the idea of context. Even those who hold realistic expectations of privacy and technology expect others to be cognizant of context and respectful when crossing contextual and social barriers. Fred Stutzman’s recent suggestions for using “Facebook as a Tool for Learning Engagement” repeatedly emphasize awareness of and respect for context. While Fred’s recommendations are aimed primarily at faculty they are just as applicable to and useful for student affairs and other administrators.

Finally, allow me to offer a few brief warnings. Some social networking services’ terms of service prohibit accounts that represent organizations instead of people. Among others, the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Facebook account was shut down several months ago as they were held to be in violation of Facebooks’ Terms of Use. In addition, some services may also claim ownership (copyright) of any material posted or uploaded to their service. Without discussing the legality of such claims, it is an issue of which one should be aware. The most prominent example of this particular issue is several years old but the issue lingers on.