We all assume that advances in technology are positive and talk excitedly about how we can do things that were not possible 10, 5, or even 1 year ago. But are new capabilities always an “advance”? Especially, is it true for the world of cultural immersion and educational exchange? It’s a tough question, and there may not be an obvious answer.
What are the good aspects?
There is no doubt that the dramatic technological changes we have seen in how we communicate has provided advantages in the international education arena. Students can use online language programs to improve their language skills. They can more easily socialize ahead of time with other students going to the same country as well as their host families. This can help to form bonds early on that will be important in their initial weeks and months in a foreign and strange place. After they arrive in their host country, the resources and connections provided by social media platforms enables students to stay in touch more easily with new friends and acquaintances, as well as letting them stay in touch with friends and family back home, often halfway around the world.
Students can – and do – use social media and the Internet generally to gain knowledge about their host country and perhaps learn something about the school they will attend and community where they will live. Where once upon a time, host families and exchange programs had to mail hard copies of registration forms, curriculum handbooks, and other relevant information, now students can find out details about their new community and school easily on the Web.
How do you immerse yourself in a culture?
It’s a normal human reaction to rely on the familiar when faced with the unfamiliar. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that teens (or young adults, for that matter – the same thinking applies to international students at the college level) turn to friends and family when they feel overwhelmed by the differences and strangeness of their host culture. As a recent research paper noted with respect to exchange students:
“Facebook allowed participants to express their feelings, which led to obtaining social support. Participants valued having friends supportive of them in difficult times and often used the status updates to seek out such support.”
Not exactly a surprise, when you’re talking about teens or young adults: Facebook, Twitter, Skype all share the common attribute of making it easier to “talk” about issues that once upon a time we only talked about in person, and even then only with people to whom we’re close.
The tough part is whether this “ease of access” really helps, or whether it hurts. For some students, the added ability to communicate back home may not make much of a difference. These students are still able to ground themselves wherever they are, and can make the needed connections to adapt to their host country and make the necessary adjustments.
Teens are notorious, however, for having difficulties in communicating openly or for addressing conflict productively. So for many, what we see in connection with social-media technologies is a spiraling downward in students’ ability to adjust, their willingness to change and adapt to the culture they are living in, and an impediment in their ability to connect to host family and host community. Students are showing up, more and more, so attached to their smart phones (and their pre-existing networks) that they truly cannot conceive of putting them down.
How it works in practice: too much of a good thing
Another study I read recently, which noted the positive aspects of how students can use the Internet and social media, also noted the danger of becoming overly attached:
“one point was brought up that sometimes people spend too much time on social media sites to where it can become addictive because people have the desire to constantly be aware of what people are doing; so, it is important to balance how much time one spends on social media sites.”
One case study serves as an example. Before arriving, this student asked several times whether she could bring her European smart phone. She expressed concern when I told her that many American families put limits on internet and cell phone use. Her host family cannot do that, she told me; it would be unfair, she would need to talk to her parents, of course her host family won’t stop her from talking/communicating with her friends, and how will she know what is going on back home?
Once here, she was glued to the phone. We would be out together, and while I would be talking to her, her phone would do the tell-tale buzz. She would drop her eyes and read the message while I was still talking. She would start texting with no explanation while I was saying something or asking her a question, even when no incoming message had appeared. Her phone might ring and she would answer it immediately even if I was in the middle of a sentence.
It was relatively easy for me to stop this behavior when she was with me; I’ve been supervising and working with high school students for some time now, and I’m not worried about saying no. The harder part is within the host family. Host parents may not be as secure or confident, especially in the beginning of the year, in saying “that is not acceptable.” They may worry that they *are* being unfair: their poor student, thousands of miles away from home….who are they, the host family secure in their own land and culture, to say their student cannot talk to friends or family whenever they want.
But it’s not just about training host families to recognize that it’s OK (more than OK!) to be a parent to their student. It’s about understanding why limiting the dizzying amount and types of communication is a good idea. Immersion is not a hard word to understand . . . but it’s a tough concept to implement. The implementation is key: to truly adapt, to truly succeed, and to truly be happy in your exchange cultural experience, you need to do it. It’s hard enough for adults; imagine how tough it is for young adults and teens.
Where do we go from here?
To some extent, the research is irrelevant. We are where we are. We can’t go back to the 1970s or 1980s, when exchange students couldn’t even call their parents or friends on the telephone very often due to cost, and communicated by letters (remember those?) which might take a week to get to their destination. News of home was often about events that had taken place weeks earlier. By the very nature of life, adjusting to your local culture and community was what you had to do. You had no other choice, nothing from home to turn to.
The technology and social media of today are here to stay. Exchange students – both of high school age and at the college level — are no different from students who are living in their own home and own country. They all use social media. They almost all have smart phones. They all are glued to the Internet. They will use what’s available to establish and maintain contacts with their new friends and their host family. There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, today’s high school students might actually have difficulty participating fully in his or her life in high school without access to one or more Internet communication options, and these options do give us so much in so many ways. The trick is managing it and teaching our international students how to use these options wisely. Let’s not allow it to get in the way of why they are here: living and learning in a new culture so that they will better understand how we live and we can better understand them.