We are living in a more connected world. Our conversations are increasingly online and it’s possible to connect with more people, faster than ever before. New technology is being developed to broaden the ways people can interact with each other, and students in the 16-25 age bracket are the fastest and most willing adopters of this new technology. It is native to us, and we find it easier than our predecessors – the Boomers or even Generation Y (who are now starting to get older).
It follows, therefore, that students in this age bracket should be the most socially engaged age group. However, research shows that is not the case. Almost half of students in the United Kingdom admit to loneliness during their time at university. Everyone gets lonely sometimes, but these rates of loneliness have a serious impact. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency 1,180 students dropped out of university due to poor mental health in the 2014-15 academic year.
Until recently, social isolation was most commonly associated with the older generation. Hardly surprising, considering that more than a million older people say that they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour, or family member. This deadly absence of social connectivity can affect anyone. Students are especially susceptible to social isolation because so much of their social connectivity is online. A 2017 study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, shows that students who use social media platforms for two or more hours a day have twice the chance of experiencing social anxiety. Those online most frequently (more than 50 times online per week), are three times as likely to have perceived social isolation compared with lighter users (less than nine times online per week).
A short trip on public transport will convince anyone that internet usage by students is much higher than 50 visits per week. It’s not uncommon to see a young person with their head down on their phone for an entire 30 minute commute. How likely are they to experience social isolation?
Students are familiar with a feeling of compulsion around social media. We want to feel connected to other people, and we consume notifications like vital nutrients. Yet "Social Media" is something of a fallacy – after all, there isn't anything social about sitting alone with your phone.
It’s when screen time substitutes genuine interactions that social isolation sets in.
However, the tech sector is slowly adapting to growing concerns that too much screen time can negatively impact mental health. Managing digital-life balance is a prime case for personal responsibility, and there are plenty of ways individuals can take control of their online habits:
1. Screen Time on Apple iOS 12 devices
This built-in app on iPhones and iPads allows users to monitor how much time they spend on devices. It gives statistics on how long a user spends daily on particular apps, as well as overall screen time. Limits can be set for specific apps, and you can set yourself “downtime” to take a complete break from your device. Digital Wellbeing is the Android equivalent.
2. IFTTT (If this, then that)
A free, comprehensive app designed to reduce the need for using phones as frequently. Rather than specifically for analysing the time spent on a device, IFTTT allows some things to happen automatically. For example, specific apps can be turned off as soon as you arrive at work, or a message can be sent to a particular contact when you leave the house. This is a productivity solution for people who want to manage their phone less.
An app that not only allows users to monitor their social media usage, but other activities such as the amount of time spent sleeping, going out, exercising, and much more. The app is designed to promote a good digital-life balance while making sure that other areas affecting mental wellbeing, such as exercise and sleep, aren’t neglected.
It’s important for students to take responsibility for their own digital-life balance, but universities also have a responsibility to make sure that positive habits are fostered. There are a growing number of institutions deciding to use online solutions to student inductions. The benefits of an online student induction are attractive: it’s inexpensive, easily transmissible, and consistent across the board. However, upon arrival is the time when most students are likely to feel lonely. Many universities provide live events for students to meet each other in a social situation. This is fine if you are a social type, but introverts often feel excluded. However, it’s when students become shut away in their rooms in order to get essential information on student support services that problems can occur. Loneliness can easily become social isolation in the absence of in-person interactions.
What students need (and want, as we start to take back control of our digital habits), is to be engaged in person. Shutting students in their dorm room to be ‘welcomed’ online is not a welcome at all. It deprives them of opportunities to connect with their fellow students at that crucial time for making friends when everyone is new.
As a 2018 university graduate, I am acutely aware of the perception that students apparently want everything online these days. If you ask students, they will most likely tell you that they already spend too much time online, and they know it.
Max Farra is a 2018 Graduate from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch New Zealand. In 2019 he relocated to London to continue working for UniSmart in his capacity as Events and Marketing Manager.