College students frequently build community in both virtual and real-life worlds. On a college campus, more often than not, the word community is synonymous with residence hall living. Whether students are taking a web-hybrid course or posting photos of their snow day on the popular photo sharing application, Instagram, students are consuming and producing information in a world that is “regulated by technology” (Martinez Aleman & Wartman, 2011, p. 515). Social networking sites provide college students with a virtual place to create profiles, build an identity and share information across social media that connect them to people across the globe (Lenhart & Madden, 2007).
As students cultivate their identity on the Internet, there is an inherent ability to share information. This social sharing has many positive benefits, however, there are also negative consequences that are proving to be endemic to student development (Kruger, 2013; O’Shea, 2013). What a student shares with their connected online networks says a lot about themselves, their values, their competencies and their personality. If photos of illegal drinking, criminal activity or violence appear on a students’ profile, educators are then “presented with the dilemma of responding to the photos or other content posted by their students” (Kruger, 2009, p. 589). Student affairs professionals, especially those who work within residential life and housing must encourage and model effective online modeling through creating purposeful, developmental interventions that will help students understand the impacts of their digital self-presentation. This could be done through intentional programming, creating campus policies pertaining to proper social media use and expectations, or even through the student conduct process where students are held accountable to what they post online and can see the tangible impact this can have on their lives.
The Internet provides unlimited access to information that can cause a sometimes liberating, and other times constraining feeling that is bursting with legal implications that address free speech, anonymity and accountability. Take Yik Yak for example. This location based App is allowing students to allegedly post “anonymous” comments about anything and anyone, with little to no oversight. Gossiping through social media can cause rumors to spread and can affect college students in a myriad of ways. Being purposeful and tactfully choosing what to share, ‘like’ and post online lies at the crux of developing a positive digital integrity, and is a catalyst for student identity development and positive online engagement.
Social media is making the world increasingly transparent, highly public and lacking in privacy. Some consumers of social media fear that the Internet makes users too public, and personal privacy is nonexistent. All of these indications support the notion that professionals must educate students to post with purpose, to become congruent and to take ownership over their digital brand. As Internet users build relationships online, via social networking platforms, it is apparent that we truly live in an age of social sharing and publicness (Jarvis, 2011). “The Internet places a seemingly endless library in our homes; it allows us to communicate with others instantly; and it enables us to spread information with an efficacy and power that humankind has never before witnessed. The free flow of information on the Internet provides wondrous new opportunities for people to express themselves and communicate” (p. 2); and it also gives others the power to capture information, images, video and personal documents that can be instantly shared with the entire world (Solove, 2007).
Many concerns surround the need to educate college students around digital identity development, and we as housing officers are at the front lines with direct access to students. We can affect the biggest impact on their development and growth, but we must do so by role modeling and engaging students where they are at: on the Internet. Generations ago, people would watch a television show and have to wait to discuss it the next day with their family or coworkers. Now, 21st Century television shows display Twitter hashtags for viewers to use while watching, hoping to stimulate engagement and discussion about viewers’ reactions to the show’s content during the shows live airing. Moreover, innovative Cars and Smart TVs have been equipped with interactive webcams and applications (such as Facebook, Twitter and Pandora), and are completely changing the way people communicate, watch TV, socialize and use social media and engage with one another. If students can be found on the Internet or face down, staring into their smart phones or tablets, this means they might not be sitting in lounges or attending RA programs like we would hope. Therefore, innovative social engagement is the best way to expand the way students interact, learn, grow and develop.
College students in particular have grown up with social media at their fingertips. Walk on a college campus and one will see the use of smart technology everywhere. Smart phones, tablets and computers have been making the campus and classroom environment a hub for social networking (Junco, 2012). A congruent identity is important now more than it ever was. With television shows like MTVs Catfish, where investigators track down people who are in online relationships and give them the chance to meet in person for the first time, it shows the power of the Internet, and an increasing need to be purposeful and practice congruency. The show Catfish follows and holds accountable people who are in virtual, long-distance relationships, and proves that privacy does not exist online. Students must understand this, and begin a journey towards virtual integrity and congruence. I believe that our role as housing professionals makes us the perfect catalysts to being to effect this positive change. If we can engage students online, they may be more apt to venture out of their rooms and join us in conversations, discussions and debates. Students may be more willing to share their frustrations via social media than they are in-person, and as educators we must capitalize on this opportunity to build community both in-person and online and challenge students to make the best use of their social media profiles by giving them a voice, and letting them be the social architects of their residential communities.