IT Infrastructure

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

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 18, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

IT Infrastructure From Our Research Center What the Massive Shift to 1-to-1 Computing Means for Schools, in Charts
1-to-1 computing has expanded at a rate few could have imagined prior to the pandemic, creating opportunities and problems.
1 min read
Illustration of laptop computer displaying bar graph.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
IT Infrastructure Internet on School Buses: FCC Eyes E-Rate Change to Expand Access
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal that would allow the use of federal E-rate funding for Wi-Fi in school buses.
2 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in the Texas school system.
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
IT Infrastructure Stopping Cyberattacks Is Top Priority for Ed-Tech Leaders. But Many Underestimate the Risk
Most K-12 district tech leaders rate common cybersecurity threats as just low or medium risk, survey shows.
4 min read
Images shows a symbolic lock on a technical background.
IT Infrastructure Spotlight Spotlight on Infrastructure Modernization
This Spotlight will help you grasp the reality of school infrastructure, parent privacy concerns, watchdog recommendations and more.