Constantly Connected

Social Media has changed the way we live and interact, but what happens when two Wilson Students give it up?

By Ben Ford

U ntil she gave up Facebook, Marissa Feldberg ’14 did not believe she would be a good candidate for an experiment to avoid social media use for a week because she did not think it was that important to her. Her friends at Wilson posted more frequently on Facebook than she did. But almost immediately after beginning the experiment, she found herself having to resist the urge to visit the site. “I was surprised by how big of a part of my life it is,” said Feldberg, 23, a communications major. “I was appalled by how much time I spend there.”

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      She is not alone. In the relatively recent existence of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other similar outlets, social media has become more a way of life than a habit for many. Open to the general public since just 2006, Facebook has grown to nearly 1 billion users globally. Created initially for college students, the fastest growing demographic currently are users 45 to 54 years old, a segment that has increased 45 percent since the end of 2012.
   At the request of Wilson Magazine, students Feldberg and Kimberly Maske-Mertz ’14 agreed to give up social media for a week and to keep a daily journal of the experience. Both of them were surprised by how strong the urge was to visit the sites.
   “It was really difficult,” said Maske-Mertz——who has 354 friends on Facebook——about the experience. “Facebook is how I keep in touch with friends and with family, and not having that connection all week was really difficult because I found myself wondering what was going on.”
   Maske-Mertz, 37, moved from Florida in 2003 and lost touch with many of her friends until she joined Facebook two or three years ago as an undergraduate student. “I’m not much of a phone talker,” she said.
   Maske-Mertz found herself having to resist strong urges to use social media. She clicked on one social outlet, 
GoodReads—-dedicated to book readers—-without even thinking about it. “It was like going through withdrawal,” she said of the experiment.
   And yet, social media does have its benefits as well.
   “I am excited to see that humans have found another means of communicating with one another,” said Jonathan Z. Long, associate professor of communications at Wilson. “Every new mass medium——from books to television to the Internet——has profoundly affected the way we all see and interpret the world around us.”
   Long believes that there are both pros and cons to the “constant connection” that social media provides. “In a 24/7 culture like ours, being able to be reached at all times of the day is one way to keep up with constant barrage of events,” he said. “But this begs the question of why we need to be reached 24/7. I have often used an exercise where I have asked students to go ‘media-free’ for a day or two. I initially tried to do it for an entire week, but no one could do it.”
   Feldberg and Maske-Mertz both pointed out many of the benefits of their activities on social media networks in addition to the drawbacks. Facebook and other sites allow them to stay in touch with friends and family, to share joys and sorrows, to keep up on news and music, and find new recipes.

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   Feldberg especially likes when she finds “other weird, novelty health foods,” to try, she said. Facebook provides an outlet for her to express herself, listen to music and watch funny clips on YouTube as a reward to herself for completion of a task. Social media networks also provide her a platform to express herself. “I like to write,” she said. “New media outlets are interesting and so is what is going on in our culture in general.”
   Facebook allowed Maske-Mertz to reconnect with friends from her past, as well as communicate with friends in Pennsylvania. Thanks to Facebook, she kept up to date on a friend’s pregnancy and learned of the child’s birth when she logged in to Facebook after the experiment. “Once I really started getting into Facebook sometime during my undergraduate days, that’s when I really started getting in touch with people that I was friends with before,” she said.
In her journal, Maske-Mertz wrote her friends did not think she would be able to do it. “A few have scoffed at the idea of me even agreeing to participate in this experiment to remain off social media,” she wrote. “Others have wished me luck. My best friend quite bluntly told me that she did not think I could last two days.”
   Maske-Mertz posts frequently to Facebook. “I find I always have it on in the background,” she said. “No matter what I’m doing there’s a window open in the background.”
   Maske-Mertz also said she is much more cognizant of her online activities now. “I’m much more conscious of how long I’m spending on Facebook and how much it distracts me from other things I’m supposed to be doing,” she said. Breaking her online habit temporarily gave her insight. “I had a lot more time on my hands. I got a lot more done without having that distraction. I’m much more wary of [Facebook] now.”
 

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   For Feldberg, visiting and writing on social networks are just part of her routine to post the occasional song lyrics that capture her mood, vent about her day or seek counsel about problems. Her friends spend even more time on the sites, she said. “I don’t feel I have an Internet addiction. I have too many other things to do. But I do find myself logging in when I could be doing better things.”
   On her first day of going without Facebook, Feldberg found herself strongly missing the companionship she has with her friends through the site because of a series of mishaps she had. “Suddenly, I feel the need to tell the world about my sense of doom-and-gloom and serious frustration,” she wrote in her journal. “Can I please just complain a little bit on my Facebook wall, and be one of those constant Facebook complainers that drive me to distraction? No, I made a moral contract with myself to refrain from the Facebook vortex.”
   The week-long experiment gave her insight into social media use and how she could make better use of her time. “I realized how much social media sucks time away from real activity—-like talking to friends face to face, reading a book or actually trying that new peanut butter protein fluff recipe instead of just posting it to my wall,” she wrote in her journal.  
   Since her experiment of going without social media for five days, Feldberg has cut back on her social media use. “All in all, I’m trying to stop procrastinating on social media,” she said. “I find myself getting angry with myself or frustrated with myself when I’m on there. It’s such a time suck. It’s not really gratifying. It’d be better for me to spend my time in a more productive way.”

   Kimberly Maske-Mertz '14 contributed to this article.

Read Kimberly Maske-Mertz and Marissa Feldberg's daily journals for more insight.

Social Media: For Better or Worse

  Social media is now “an integral part of our culture” that most—especially the younger generation—-rely upon not only for entertainment but also for information, said Jonathan Z. Long, associate professor of communications at Wilson. “With new media technologies being invented every day, we now have this ability [to stay connected] in the palm of our hands—-no pun intended,” he said. “This means that there are more opportunities for us to learn about new viewpoints and ideas from other individuals—increasingly around the world.”
   A study released in May found 72 percent of American adults currently online use social networking sites, up from 8 percent when the study began in February 2005, according to a new report released by Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
Sometimes, though, the constant connection is too constant. Like other college students, it is not unusual to hear some Wilson students say they spend too much time procrastinating on social media, while some spend so much time on them it “completely interfered with their school work,” said Cindy Shoemaker, director of counseling. The College’s counselors work with the students to change their online habits. “We help them develop compartmentalization skills where they actually plan for Internet time instead of just doing it randomly when they feel the urge.”
   Many of the students Shoemaker counsels grew up with cellphones and the Internet so they do not even recognize that the time they spend online can interfere with their work, Shoemaker said. Social media can also exacerbate emotions for some, she said. “Sometimes the students say, ‘Everybody on my Facebook account seems to have a boyfriend or girlfriend and I’m a loser, I’m lonely,’” Shoemaker said.
   Some students admit to sleeping with their smartphones so they do not miss a text or online notification, Shoemaker said. In a 2012 study conducted by Pew Research titled “The Best and the Worst of Mobile Connectivity,” 67 percent of cell owners admitted to checking their phone for messages, alerts and calls even when it did not ring. Of those surveyed, 44 percent admitted to sleeping with their phone beside their bed in order to avoid missing a call or alert.
   For some, the habit becomes something worse. A 2006 study by Stanford University’s School of Medicine found one in eight Americans suffers symptoms of “problematic Internet use” that interfere with day-to-day activities. There is a debate whether the Internet and social media sites are creating the problem, or those who experience symptoms already had addictive personalities. Still, many specialists have lobbied for problematic Internet use’s inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a certified mental disorder, though it was not included in the 2013 edition. ­
—Kimberly Maske-Mertz '14