IT Infrastructure

‘Real World’ Social Media Helps Students Bond, Say Researchers

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 18, 2013 4 min read
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As technology becomes ever more ubiquitous in children’s social lives, new research suggests fundamental skills still apply, particularly in environments that mirror real life.

Children’s online social lives were a big topic at the annual Society for Research in Child Development conference in Seattle last week. Several new studies presented there suggest that while socializing virtually can make it harder for students to make deep connections with one another, situations that more closely mimic the real world—such as video-chat or avatar environments—can lead to more natural engagement.

Both in and out of school, students are socializing more online. According to an annual report released last month by the Pew Internet and American Life project, 95 percent of teenagers are active online, and nearly three out of four children ages 12 to 17 access the Internet via mobile devices, making virtual connections much more integral to most students’ daily lives.

At the same time, more than 6.7 million students took at least one online class in 2012 according to an annual national survey; most of those classes require students to interact or collaborate with classmates and instructors virtually.

Emotional Connections

Pew found that educators and technology experts report concerns that socializing virtually will lead students to be “distracted away from deep engagement with people.”

In one study scheduled to be presented at the conference, Lauren Sherman, a psychology researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@Los Angeles, recorded 50 pairs of 18- and 19-year-old friends while they planned together via videoconference, audio-only chat, and instant messaging, and while sitting together in the same room. She and her colleagues measured both students’ reported feelings of connectedness and physical signs, such as smiles, nods, and gestures.

The closer the virtual method was to live interaction, Ms. Sherman found, the better students were able to engage socially, though in-person interaction remained the most engaging.

Students using video chat—which allows the most identification of facial and body gestures, voice inflection, and other cues—showed the greatest depth of social bonding, and students reported the greatest feeling of social engagement afterward. Students using text messaging felt and acted the least connected.

“Emotional connectedness can, of course, make an essential difference in classroom learning and student success, and our study suggests that emotional connectedness is limited in digital environments,” Ms. Sherman said in an interview. “Even for digital natives—that is, young people who have grown up surrounded by digital media—in-person communication is still most effective for establishing connectedness.”

“This means that if digital learning environments are replacing in-person environments, students could lose out on opportunities to forge strong bonds with teachers and classmates,” she said.

The context matters, though. Students reported that digital collaboration was more efficient for ongoing planning and small talk, while it was better to be face to face for in-depth discussions.

Virtual collaboration can be beneficial, Ms. Sherman found, when it supplements in-person learning by providing opportunities to work with peers or teachers at a distance, or to use less emotional digital methods “to discuss tough topics that would feel overwhelming in person.”

Evaluating Avatars

She pointed to the rising popularity of technology that more closely mirrors real life, such as video-texting apps and avatar-based virtual classrooms.

“This suggests that efforts to use technologies that afford audiovisual communication [such as] video chat could allow for a far greater bonding experience in digital collaborative-learning environments,” she said.

A team of researchers led by Stephanie M. Reich, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, have spent the past three years and 2,000 hours online observing students in virtual play worlds. Separately, over a six-month period, the researchers also tracked 10 families with children ages 3 to 12, interviewing and observing the children’s on- and offline interactions.

Ms. Reich and her colleagues found that the students who were the most socially successful online—the ones who were able to start and maintain conversations with new people—used social skills that would be equally appropriate in real life.

They used in-world slang, moved their avatars to create nonverbal gestures, and included emoticons like ";^)” to make up for the lack of voice tone to clarify the meaning of a typed comment. By contrast, students who interrupted other players or tried to continue conversations when the other person was “clearly uninterested” were less successful overall.

Moreover, while Ms. Reich found aggression common in virtual forums, other players comforted the victim and reported the bully after most hostile incidents.

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Online Socialization Is Hot Topic Among Researchers

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