Everyday life, online: U.S. college students’ use of the Internet
First Monday

Everyday life, online: U.S. college students’ use of the Internet



Abstract
The goal of this study was to learn about how college students are using the Internet and to compare their use of it to that of college students as reported in 2002 by replicating and extending previous research. A survey of college students at 40 U.S. higher education institutions was conducted, along with observations and interviews at several Midwestern universities. For comparison to the general population a nationwide telephone survey was undertaken. The study found that Internet use had predictably increased but that college students continued to prefer using multiple methods of communication to stay in touch with friends and family. College students continue to be early adopters of new Internet tools and applications in comparison to the general U.S. Internet–using population. For U.S. college students, Internet technologies have become so ubiquitous as to seem invisible.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Methodology
Results
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

It is a given that college students use the Internet. The 2002 Pew Internet & American Life Project report titled “The Internet Goes to College” (Jones, 2002) found college students to be heavy users of the Internet, with 74 percent of the students surveyed reportedly using the Internet for “four or more hours per week.” [1] Heavy Internet use has been spreading through other generations since, and Rogers’ (2003) pioneering work on the diffusion of innovations can provide a framework for contemplating the connection between college students’ Internet use and subsequent adoption of Internet tools by older generations. New online technologies such as Napster were invented on college campuses, and the initial development of the Internet took place in an academic setting. In the intervening six years since the publication of “The Internet Goes to College” (a lifetime in Internet years) many online tools have been adopted first by college students. Facebook, MySpace, BitTorrent, online games, and numerous other phenomena seem to have had a head start on college campuses, or, in cases like Facebook, were primarily conceived for college students. In short, the trend of online developments either occurring on or first adopted at college campuses continues. While ours is not a traditional diffusion of innovations study, it is important to generate a broad, comprehensive portrait of Internet use amongst college students to understand what they are doing online and what the implications of their use may be for other Internet users.

This study therefore examines how college students are using the Internet, compares their use to that of college students as reported in 2002 and to the general population. To guide our comparisons to the findings of Jones’ 2002 report, we pose broad questions regarding student Internet use: What kinds of things are today’s college students doing online that are different than what students were doing five years ago? What points of similarity and difference can we identify between the role the Internet plays in students’ social routines now and in 2002? To what extent are college students using new online tools such as blogs, Facebook, and MySpace? Tracking the evolution of students’ Internet use can help to illuminate trends in online life and help us look forward as the Internet increasingly informs aspects of everyday life.

 

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Literature review

In 1988 the first Internet worm burrowed through the network and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was invented. By the time this generation of college students was three years old, The World Wide Web had been invented, and so one can rightly claim that this generation does not remember a time without it. In short, for these students, the Internet has always been around. Somewhat unsurprisingly then, college students use the Internet for a wide variety of purposes. Scholars suggest that over time, students have broadened their uses of the Internet and increasingly incorporated it into their daily lives. Wilson (1999) found in 1996, through focus groups with students from “five small, independent, residential, undergraduate colleges in central Pennsylvania” [2], that e–mail, followed second by “course–related research,” was students’ primary use of the Internet [3]. In 1996, other primary uses included: recreation, such as communicating in online groups or playing games; academic, such as researching scholarships or completing online applications; and “practical,” such as preparing for job interviews by researching companies [4]. Amongst Wilson’s small sample, students overall spent an average of 2.6 hours per week on the Internet.

As Internet penetration levels increased, patterns of Internet use began to change and more recreational uses emerged. Malaney (2004–2005) found, “…communicating with other people (chatting and e–mail in 2000, IM and e–mail in 2003) represent[ed] students’ primary use of the Internet.” [5] In 2000 and 2003, students also used the Internet for coursework, general Web surfing, and “[d]ownloading music, software, and movies.” [6] In a survey with a sample of 143,730 students at 63 higher education institutions in 24 U.S. and 18,039 respondents, Kvavik and Caruso (2005) similarly reported that during the time of their study, the majority of students used technology for e–mail (99.7 percent of students), for course–related writing (98.9 percent), for course–related Internet surfing (98.4 percent), and “surfing the Internet for pleasure” (94.8 percent). [7] Bressers and Bergen’s (2002) findings echoed others’ and they also note less frequent though still noteworthy uses, including “job search[ing],” “shopping,” (Kvavik and Caruso found that 71.9 percent of students shopped online), “chat or personals,” and “games.” [8] In addition to what might be considered more constructive uses of the Internet, students also engage in controversial activities online, such as pirating software and sharing copyrighted materials. Brown (2006) notes that troubles with online gambling are becoming significant on college campuses.

Students overall are heavy users of the Internet; for some, excessive Internet use has proven problematic. Anderson (2001) draws attention to the perils of excessive Internet use, likening it to a form of “substance dependence.” [9] According to his survey of students at seven U.S. colleges and universities and one in Ireland, students whose responses suggested they were “Internet dependent” spent more than three times as much time online (229 minutes/day) than “the rest of the sample” (73 minutes/day) [10] Wang and Artero (2005) report that the majority of the 647 students (80 percent) who responded to their survey spent between one and 20 hours online each week; the remaining one–fifth of the students — the heaviest users — reported more than 20 hours per week of Internet use. The most frequent users in these studies may suffer social and health consequences as a result of their time online, as Anderson (2001) finds that inordinately heavy Internet use is associated with disrupted sleep, as well as disarrayed social and academic lives.

Social uses of the Internet

Students appear to be using the Internet for social communication with increasing frequency. With the advent of social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, and chat technologies like instant messaging (IM), many college students “build and form social relationships online.” [11] Cotten and Jelenewicz (2006) surveyed freshmen students in residence at a mid–Atlantic “midsized public research university” and found high rates of social activity online [12]. Nearly all students in their survey (97 percent) “reported accessing the Internet several times a day.” [13] Overall, students indicated they spent twice the time online (28 hours per week) using the Internet for “communicative purposes” than for “noncommunicative purposes” (14 hours per week) [14].

Instant messaging has proven to be very popular with students. Cotten and Jelenewicz reported that students spent an average of 20 hours per week using IM, while other frequent uses included browsing the Web (nine hours/week) and e–mail (six hours/week). In a survey of 268 students at a Canadian university, Quan–Haase (2007) found a similarly strong preference for online social interaction among college students, and also for IM. Two–thirds (67 percent) of respondents reported using IM on campus on a daily basis. For the majority of IM users (70 percent), going online meant signing in to an IM account. IM was more commonly used than e–mail, phone, and even face–to–face communication for social relationships on campus and to communicate with other contacts in close geographic proximity (Quan–Haase, 2007).

College students are frequent users of social networking sites (SNS) compared to the general population. Peluchette and Karl (2008) examined the social networking habits and attitudes of 433 undergraduates at a mid–sized university in the Midwest, and found that the large majority of students (80 percent) used one or more social networking sites. Facebook, they noted, was used most heavily. In a report for the Pew Research Center, Kohut, et al. (2008) found that approximately one–fifth (22 percent) of the general U.S. adult population used social networking sites. For Interent users age 18–29, the percentage was much higher (67 percent). They also noted that users of social networking sites, especially those in the college–age subset (37 percent of 18–24 year olds) used SNSs to educate themselves about the 2008 Presidential candidates and campaign.

Differential use

While students as a group exhibit similar Internet preferences and online behaviors, there is evidence of differential use between demographic groups. In particular, scholars have examined race and ethnicity, as well as gender, as predictors of Internet use, and identified points of contrast. Firm conclusions, however, about the relationship between race, gender, and Internet use, are difficult to draw.

In their concluding commentary, Fortson, et al. (2007) highlight a general pattern in the literature on differential use related to gender, which suggests that women use the medium to communicate with others and for educational purposes more frequently than do men, while men tend to turn to the Internet as a source of entertainment with greater frequency than women. Their own findings, however, suggest that men and women use email and pursue academic uses online with equal frequency. The authors speculate that certain activities have become part of average use as a result of near ubiquitous Internet access on campus.

Jackson, et al. (2001) found “no gender differences” regarding “trust of the Internet, concerns about Internet privacy, or current computer ownership.” [15] Peluchette and Karl (2008) found that male and female users expressed different concerns for their image and privacy on social networking sites. Males were more likely than females to indicate that they would post “self–promoting and risqué pictures or comments … on their profile, whereas females were significantly more likely than males to post romantic or ‘cute’ pictures and/or information.” [16] Furthermore, female college students expressed somewhat greater concern than males over keeping the less savory aspects of their social networking profiles private from employers. These two studies are separated by several years, and also by degrees of specificity. Jackson, et al. examined attitudes towards the Internet in general, while Peluchette and Karl investigated attitudes specific to SNSs. Taken together, however, suggests that gender differences may evolve over time and may also vary by application. Their studies further highlight that gender may be an important variable, but it must be constantly reexamined as the online environment changes.

Race has also emerged as a predictor of differential use, though again, firm conclusions are difficult to draw. Digital divides based on race and tied to access have been demonstrated (e.g., Hoffman and Novak, 1998; and others), especially as computers and the Internet were in relatively initial stages of availability to the average consumer. More recently, Cotten and Jelenewicz’s (2006) work suggests that while there may be race–based differences related to “the odds of using different Internet activities,” college students of different races who use the Internet exhibit similar “usage levels.” [17] Surveys of the general U.S. population, such as the ones conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2009), point to a narrowing of the digital divide over time.

What is certain is that students overall have exhibited clear preferences towards using the Internet as a medium for social interaction and, in most cases, used it with great frequency in their everyday lives. As more and more aspects of life — for college students in particular — are conducted online and with the knowledge that excessive use may have consequences for students’ well–being, it is important to track the time they spend online and their patterns of use, from blogging and keeping up with friends via email, IM, and social networking sites, to downloading movies and music and pursuing leisure activities.

 

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Methodology

During the Spring academic term of 2005, a team of researchers collected survey data from 29 two–year and four–year colleges and universities in the continental United States. Respondents were recruited via mass e–mail messages sent to all students at each of the 29 campuses. In addition, recruitment messages were sent to a random sample of students, stratified by class (Freshman, Sophomore, etc.), at 11 other campuses. In total, the research team received 7,421 complete surveys.

The research team aimed to survey a sample that was reflective of general demographics of college students in the United States. The institutions included in the study were diverse and represented public and private, flagship and regional, urban and rural, research–oriented and teaching–oriented schools. Campus recruitment aimed to and in fact yielded a sample that reflected student demographics reported for each institution. The overall sample was tested against demographic data for U.S. college students as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2005), including known gender, race, and age parameters. The sample was found to be reflective of the national population of college students as reported by NCES. Table A compares NCES data and survey responses for gender and shows a general correspondence between the two surveys.

 

Table A: College students’ gender.
Source: Spring 2005 survey of U.S. college students, n=7,421, and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), College Student Population in the USA 2003–2004.
 2005 Survey
(percent)
NCES Survey
(percent)
Male43.542.5
Female56.557.5

 

Table B compares NCES data and survey responses for race. It, too, shows a general correspondence between the two surveys. It should be noted that due to the relatively small sample size of American Indian and Asian students that findings include only data for Black non–Hispanic, Hispanic and White non–Hispanic college students.

 

Table B: College students’ race.
Source: Spring 2005 survey of U.S. college students, n=7,421, and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), College Student Population in the USA 2003–2004.
 2005 Survey
(percent)
NCES Survey
(percent)
American Indian1.01.0
Asian6.15.9
Black, non–Hispanic11.712.0
Hispanic9.711.0
White, non–Hispanic64.959.5
Missing/unknown6.77.5

 

It should be noted that the survey did not specifically include an “unknown” race category, and that 6.7 percent of respondents did not answer the question asking about race.

Table C compares NCES data and survey responses for age. Due to restrictions placed on the research by Institutional Review Boards at schools included in the survey, students who were under 18 were considered minors and were not surveyed. The data presented here from NCES regarding age includes for–profit institutions; these are not included in the present survey. Also, due to differences in survey design between this survey and that of NCES, it is not possible to make direct comparisons of responses from those over 25 years old (13.9 percent of our sample is over 25 years old).

 

Table C: College students’ age.
Source: Spring 2005 survey of U.S. college students, n=7,421, and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), College Student Population in the USA 2003–2004.
 2005 Survey
(percent)
NCES Survey
(percent)
14–17 years old1.5
18 & 19 years old25.128.7
20 & 21 years old34.228.2
22–24 years old21.219.2

 

As with any survey research, sampling error, the wording of individual questions, and practical obstacles with survey administration may introduce bias or error into the data. For the results reported here, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus one percentage point.

A team of graduate and undergraduate researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago also collected ethnographic data for this report during three academic terms (Fall 2005, Spring 2006, and Fall 2006). The researchers, trained in ethnographic methods of observation and data collection, observed the behaviors of college students using the Internet at several institutions of higher learning in the upper Midwest United States. The researchers made observations in public places where students used the Internet, and varied the days and times of their observations.

For purposes of comparison between U.S. college students and the general U.S. population, this study also includes data on Internet use in the United States. Princeton Survey Research Associates collected this data through two rounds of telephone interviews, at approximately the same time as the data from college students was gathered. During the first round of interviews, which took place 4 May–7 June 2005, a total of 2,001 responses from U.S. adults, ages 18 and older, were obtained. For the results based on the total sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus two percentage points. For results based on the number of Internet users, 1,336, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus three percentage points. The second set of interviews took place 24 November–31 December 2005. Members of the general U.S. population, ages 18 and over, were interviewed. For results based on the total sample of 3,011, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus two percentage points. For results based on the number of Internet users, 1,931, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus two percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting telephone surveys may introduce some error or bias into the findings of opinion polls. At least 10 attempts were made to complete an interview at every household in the sample. The calls were staggered over times of day and days of the week to maximize the chances of making contact with a potential respondent. Interview refusals were re-contacted at least once in order to try again to complete an interview.

 

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Results

Most college students entering as freshmen at the time of data collection were born in 1988 when the PC revolution was well under way. We found that almost all college students who took the survey (93 percent) reported having used computers (not just for Internet use) for at least six years, with the majority (57 percent) using computers for more than 11 years. Nearly half (46 percent) used the Internet before their parents learned to use it, while only 13 percent began going online after their parents were already doing so. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of today’s college students consider the computer anything but a novelty. It is for them a technology that is as commonplace and unexceptional as the microwave or television. Three–quarters (76 percent) own a desktop computer and over half (54 percent) own a laptop computer. Over one–third (35 percent) own both a desktop and laptop computer, while a mere three percent do not own a computer. Ninety percent said they used their own computer the most, while 10 percent said they used a computer at school or at work, or a friend’s computer, the most. The majority (66 percent) said the computer they used the most was in their dorm room or apartment, while 13 percent said the computer they used the most was a laptop and they used it in multiple locations. Campus computer labs were the next most commonly cited single location of students’ most used computer, reported by only eight percent of those surveyed.

As with computers, nearly all (87 percent) students surveyed reported having used the Internet for at least six years. This is significantly longer than the general population, for which it was found that less than two–thirds had six or more years of Internet experience. However, less than 12 percent of students reported using the Internet for more than 11 years. This would suggest that most of today’s college students were introduced to the Internet at or around the same time they were introduced to the computer. For this group a computer without an Internet connection is like a TV without cable or a satellite dish connected to it.

Just over half of students surveyed (52 percent) first began using the Internet at home, while over one–third (39 percent) first began using it at school. Only three percent reported first using it in college. The rest reported that they first began using it at a variety of other locations, such as the workplace, the military, public libraries, friends’ homes, and parents’ workplaces. Nearly half (46 percent) began using the Internet before their parents, and another 28 percent stated that they learned to use the Internet at the same time as their parents.

Overall Internet use appears to be increasing at about the same pace as it was during the 2002 survey of college students (Jones, 2002), with about one–third (33 percent) of students reporting that they used the Internet more now (at the time of the survey) than six months ago (see Table D). The majority, 58 percent, said they were using the Internet with about the same frequency as they were six months ago. As would be expected on the basis of computer ownership, college students most often connect to the Internet using desktop (87 percent) or laptop (55 percent) computers.

 

Table D: How much do you use the Internet now compared with six months ago?
 2002 Survey
(Jones, 2002)
2005
Use more now3233
Use less now159
Use about the same5158
Don’t know/not sure2<1

 

However, nearly one–third (31 percent) reported that they sometimes used their cell phone to go online. And, as was the case in 2002, the majority (63 percent) of college students reported that they would be more likely to use the phone than the Internet to communicate with friends and relatives, though this was less than the 69 percent who said they would do so in 2002.

College students spend considerably more time online each day than Internet users in the general population. Nearly all students (94 percent) reported spending at least one full hour on the Internet every day. The amount of time college students spend online has risen significantly. Jones (2002) reported that 77 percent of college students spend at least an hour online each day. Over half (53 percent) of the students in the current survey reported being online three or more hours per day, compared to fewer than one quarter of Internet users in the general population who reported being online more than three hours per day. Most students (70 percent) could not give a specific time of day at which they most often went online because they are online many times throughout the day, though about one in eight (13 percent) stated a preference for going online during evening hours.

For an interesting point of contrast, consider that, while nearly all students reported spending at least one hour on the Internet every day, and therefore a minimum of seven hours a week online, the majority of students (72 percent) reported spending less than that amount of time studying for classes, up from 62 percent in 2002. While one cannot conclude that Internet use has therefore eaten into students’ time spent studying (since it is not possible to track the students from 2002 to accurately determine whether or not that is truly the case) one can posit a connection between the two, and it would certainly be one worthy of further research.

General communication uses

As was the case in 2002, social communication (communicating with friends and family) was most often the reason students used the Internet. Forty percent of today’s college students reported most often using the Internet for social communication (compared with 42 percent in 2002), while 28 percent reported most often using it for entertainment (music, video, games, surfing, etc.) compared to just 10 percent in 2002 (Jones, 2002). Twenty–two percent of the students surveyed said they most often used the Internet to engage in work related to their classes, a large decrease from the 38 percent reported in Jones’ 2002 report.

Six–in–ten students (60 percent) spent at least two hours per week online engaged in social communication, and nearly half (44 percent) spent three or more hours per week online for this purpose. About one–quarter (28 percent) of college students felt the Internet took time away from other social activities.

Nearly three–quarters (74 percent) of college students reported that friends were the people with whom they communicated most online. Family ranked a distant second (10 percent), followed by romantic partners (four percent). Professors fell from the third (seven percent in 2002) to the fourth most common (two percent) group with whom students communicated most online, now ranked alongside work colleagues (two percent). About one in five (21 percent) college students said they had formed a romantic relationship with someone online before meeting them in person. A similar number (17 percent) also reported that they had at some point tried online dating. Of the various types of friends with whom students communicated most often online, those they met on campus were most common (33 percent), followed by high school friends (27 percent), friends at other universities (11 percent), and friends who are working and not attending a university (eight percent).

In keeping with their heavy emphasis on social communication online, e–mail continues to be college students’ most common Internet activity, but it has declined slightly in popularity. Half (50 percent) of the college students surveyed reported using e–mail the most while online, and over one–third (37 percent) reported using instant messaging (IM) the most. E–mail decreased roughly 12 percentage points as the most commonly used Internet communication tool, while instant messaging increased about eight percentage points. Nevertheless, college students remain avid e–mail users, with nearly 90 percent checking their e–mail at least once a day, a significant increase from 2002, when less than 75 percent checked their e–mail at least once a day. One–fifth (20 percent) of college students surveyed reported continuously or almost continuously checking e–mail.

As indicated above, instant messaging use has also increased among college students since 2002, and it is much more prevalent among college students than it is among Internet users in the general population. Eighty–three percent of today’s college students reported IMing, while in 2002, 73 percent reported IMing. By contrast, only about one–third (37 percent) of U.S. Internet users had communicated online via IM. Among the many students IMing, nearly one–quarter (24 percent) indicated they did so several times during the day, while a third (33 percent) said they did so continuously or almost continuously.

College students are also much more interested in blogging than the general U.S. population of Internet users. One–third (33 percent) of students reported keeping a blog, compared to eight percent of U.S. Internet users. Their experience with blogging varied, with about half reporting a year or less of blogging and nearly one–half (45 percent) reporting having maintained a blog for over a year. Unlike e–mail or IMing, blogging appears to be more of an occasional online activity for college students. While almost one in five (19 percent) reported updating their blog a few times per week, most bloggers (63 percent) reported adding to their blog less than once a week.

Social networking

Social networking has grown exponentially during the last several years and a considerable amount of research on social networking has been published since 2005 (Barnes, 2006; boyd, 2006; boyd, 2007; boyd and Ellison, 2007; Clark, et al., 2007; Ellison, et al., 2007; Gangadharbatla, 2008; Hargittai, 2008; Jones, et al., 2007; Stutzman, 2008). While it is not a goal of this study to provide an in–depth analysis of social networking’s role in college students’ Internet use (and, it should be noted, social networking was just beginning to increase in popularity at the time of this study’s first survey was in the field) its importance cannot be discounted. Half (50 percent) of students surveyed reported that their favorite social activity online was communicating with friends on campus. More than one–third (36 percent) reported logging on to Facebook every day, while one in five (21 percent) reported logging on to Facebook several times per day. However, more than one–third (37 percent) of those surveyed never or almost never logged on to Facebook. Even though friends were most commonly cited as the people with whom college students communicated online, as previously noted about two–thirds (63 percent) agreed that they are more likely to talk to their friends on the phone than to communicate with them via the Internet.

Interview subjects routinely reported that they first became Facebook users due to “peer pressure.” The phrase was not always used pejoratively. Some reported being grateful to friends who urged them to get an account and to use it. In almost every case, however, Facebook was not a site they stumbled upon randomly, but rather something that spread by word of mouth through existing, non–technological social networks.

Several interviewees used the term “addiction” in regard to their heavy use of Facebook. One student said, “I just like to see if I have new friend requests or new messages because it gives me a boost of self–esteem. I like wanting to be connected to old friends and I like them wanting to be connected to me.” Virtually all of the students interviewed and observed expressed a desire to have a large number of friends link to them. In addition to self–esteem, self–presentation seemed to be a concern. According to one student, “People look at the number of friends you have and think ‘Wow! This guy has a lot of friends! There must be a reason for that.’”

The expansion of Facebook to most every college campus (and many high schools) in the United States and to the general public has meant that for the first time college students have a single Web site that provides easy connection among and between college acquaintances and former high school friends. The social networks that college students now maintain, thanks to Internet technologies, is larger than it has ever been, and it is clearly important to them that they remain in touch with old friends. This student’s comment is representative: “The majority of my friends went to different colleges after high school. Facebook allows me to keep in touch with them and find out how they are doing.” It should be noted that the concept of “friend” in regard to social networking sites is far more broad and vague than it might at first seem. One’s “friends” need not necessarily be someone with whom one is previously acquainted, in fact, but may be someone who finds something on a user’s profile and feels they have some common interest. The discovery leads to a “friend request” and, if approved, to becoming a “friend.” All of the students interviewed confirmed that they have many such “friends” that they do not know in any way other than from Facebook. Given students’ definition of “friend” the finding that college students most communicate with friends online might need to be taken with a grain of salt.

A very common pattern of use emerged among Facebook users interviewed and observed. After an initial period of heavy use of the site, within a few weeks to a few months the amount of time spent on the site decreased greatly. The decrease seemed tied to the decline in adding friends to one’s profile that typically occurred once one’s existing social network had been added to the site. One student said, “I started to check less and less after I stopped getting friend requests. In the beginning I used to get three or four requests a day, but now I get one every three weeks or so.” Another student said that after the first flush of activity, “I forgot I have it.” There is also a stigma associated with having too many friends and to logging on to the site too often. At the time of the interview Facebook did not show when a profile was last updated, and it was lauded by some students for not showing when a user last logged on, in contrast to sites such as MySpace or Friendster. According to one student:

“I love how on Facebook it doesn’t tell you when the last time you logged on was. Friendster lets everyone see how long it’s been since you last logged on, and for people like me who go on almost every day, the site makes it seem as if I have no life outside of Friendster.”

Most students did show some uneasiness at the amount of time they spend using Facebook and MySpace, particularly because those sites tend to serve as distractions. Observations revealed that very often students working on an assignment in a campus computer lab would take a “mini–study break” by going to one of those sites to update their profile, leave a comment on a friend’s page, check for friend requests, or simply browse others’ profiles. An interesting phenomenon observed was groups of students, usually of two to four, gathered around a computer in a public computer lab or around a student’s laptop in a cafeteria, lounge or other public area, looking at Facebook and MySpace profiles. The students would point out information in the profile, comment on it, and generally use the sites as a form of group entertainment. One student noted that on some occasions he and his friends might leave a comment on someone’s profile page as a way of including that person in the group. “The comments are short, but it’s like I’m still talking to them.”

However, at the point when friend requests taper off, a Facebook user’s activity seems to shift from building a social network to putting in the minimum amount of time necessary to maintain a social network. One student’s remarks were typical:

“It’s sad to think about how much less I use it because it’s like you find all these old friends, but after all the old inside jokes and ‘Hi, how are you?’ notes, both of you really do not have much to communicate about since you’re both in your own worlds.”

Other online activities

The most commonly cited non–academic information and entertainment activities reported by college students are logging on to Facebook (36 percent do so every day or several times a day) and checking the weather (35 percent do this at least once a day). Other regular online activities in which at least one in five reported they engage at least several times a week include: researching products or services they are thinking about buying (27 percent); looking for information about jobs (24 percent); checking sports scores (22 percent); paying bills and banking (20 percent); and, getting maps or directions (20 percent).

 

Table E: Have never or almost never done this online
*Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project tracking survey, 29 November–31 December 2005.
**Did not ask about online phone calls.
 Percentage of college studentsPercentage of general U.S. population*
Banking/pay bills4056
Online phone call40—**
Create and maintain a blog6893
Visit adult Web sites5887
Play games2464
Download music or videos4475
File sharing3073
Take an online–only course7188
Use search engines59
Get news3631

 

Students reported little to no engagement in all of the other activities asked about in the survey, including searching for a place to live or for a roommate (61 percent reported never doing so), looking for health or medical information online (the majority of those who do look for such information online, 32 percent, do so less than once a month, while almost as many, 29 percent, report never looking for such information on the Internet), looking for religious or spiritual information online (64 percent have never done so), and participating in an online auction (over half, 52 percent, have never done so). Table E is a list of infrequent activities and comparison of college students with the general population for those activities. While they may not be frequently engaged in those activities, college students are in general more likely to try them at least once compared to the general public, as illustrated by data reported in Table F.

 

Table F: Have you ever done this online?
*Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project tracking survey, 29 November–31 December 2005.
 Percentage of college studentsPercentage of general U.S. population*
Banking/pay bills6043
Online phone call109
Create and maintain a blog338
Visit SNS (Facebook, MySpace, etc.)6313
Use Wi–Fi3825
Use Instant Messaging (IM)8339
Play games7636
Download music or videos5625
File sharing6027
Take an online–only course2712
Use search engines9591
Get news6468

 

Pursuing hobbies, playing video games, looking for information about movies, book, music or other leisure activities, and listening to music or watching videos were frequent activities for 40 percent or more of those surveyed. About half (49 percent) reported frequently downloading videos and music, with one–third (33 percent) downloading once per week or more, and one in six (16 percent) doing so daily to several times a day. By comparison, only about one–quarter (25 percent) of U.S. Internet users reported having ever downloaded music. File sharing in general was more than twice as common among college students as among the general U.S. Internet–using population, with close to two–thirds (64 percent) of students engaging in it compared to about one–quarter (27 percent) of all Internet users in the U.S.

College students do appear to be more frequent (or more truthful?) users of adult Web sites when compared with the general U.S. population, with just over one–quarter (27 percent) of those surveyed reporting visiting them once a week or more. By comparison, only 13 percent of U.S. Internet users reported visiting adult Web sites at all. Gambling, however, including poker, was a very infrequent activity. Only 10 percent of college students reported gambling at least several times a week, and 80 percent of college students reported that they never, or almost never, played poker online or gambled online.

Security concerns

News stories concerning breaches of online security and data privacy are commonplace. Many of the breaches occur in university settings, like one in April 2007 at Ohio State University that involved a hacker gaining access to names, Social Security numbers, and grades of 3,500 former students. Increased use of mobile technologies such as laptops may also give rise to privacy and data loss due to simple theft.

News of data and privacy loss, as well as concerns about theft, may have had an impact on college students. The security of personal information online was of at least moderate concern for college students; nearly three–quarters (72 percent) stated they were somewhat concerned to very concerned about the privacy of their personal data. In a survey of Internet use among the general U.S. population, online security also seemed to be a priority. A great majority (88 percent) of U.S. Internet users employed some form of virus protection software, and over half (56 percent) used firewall software. But surprisingly almost half (46 percent) of college students surveyed said they took no security measures to protect their data. (Some may simply be unaware of default settings that provide a degree of privacy and/or virus protection.) Of the 54 percent who do take some security measures, common methods included anti–virus and firewall software, adware and spyware blocking programs, use of secured Web sites when sending personal information, avoiding Web sites which require personal information, and frequent password changes.

Many college students reported changes in online behavior resulting from concerns about privacy and computer viruses. One student reported “check(ing) the security of (a) website before … enter(ing) my credit card number.” Another stated, “I do not give personal information,” while yet another reported “I use fake names and addresses.” One student said, “I don’t buy anything online.” Numerous students reported using pop–up ad blockers, deleting unsolicited e–mail messages, and disabling cookies. Many reported that they frequently rotate passwords and use ones that are not easily guessed.

Observations in public computer labs and other places on campus where students access the Internet showed that students are also aware of a need for privacy in those places. Most students would minimize or hide applications that they were not immediately using. Others would try to obscure the monitor or, most often among those with laptops, seclude themselves from others in the room. Very often, when browsing sites that were obviously not connected with any academic work or browsing adult sites, students would surreptitiously glance around in an effort to check whether anyone was watching. No cases were observed in which a student forgot to log off a computer they were using. By contrast, many students would leave personal belongings unattended for anywhere from several minutes to a half hour when going to talk with a friend or leaving the room for a break.

Considering the frequency with which most college students access personal data during routine interactions with courseware, course registration or other services provided by their college, it is clear that college officials should continue to stress the importance of online security and privacy to students.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

In some ways little has changed since the first comprehensive look at U.S. college students’ Internet use (Jones, 2002). Internet use is thoroughly woven into a college student’s life. Today’s college student has for all intents and purposes grown up with early knowledge of, if not regular access to, the Internet. Whereas it was true in 2002 that college students took near–ubiquitous Internet access for granted, since that time they take almost everything about the Internet for granted. They have access to numerous “Web 2.0” technologies and were at the forefront of the use of social networking sites. Their incorporation of those technologies has been almost seamless, with little obvious transition from earlier technologies. There is little of the kind of “buzz” and hype amongst students about these technologies that one finds in many blogs, newspapers and magazines. E–mail is still the tool the majority of college students use most often. More of them are blogging now than before, and on a percentage basis there are more bloggers among college students than among the general population. As a group they are heavy users of Web 2.0 tools, and most of them seem to view those tools as a part of college life and a part of communicating with new friends, old friends, and family.

These findings suggest that students’ experience of the Internet in 2005 was largely the same as that of their 2002 counterparts. And yet at another level much has changed, as illustrated in Table G. In a relatively short period of time some of the main uses of the Internet have shifted greatly among college students. While social communication, a primary use, remains largely unchanged (and surprisingly so considering the increase in social networking sites during the period between surveys), the number of students who most often use the Internet for coursework has greatly decreased. The number who use it for entertainment, by contrast, has greatly increased. One possibility is that the categories we have used became somewhat conflated over time. It may be that social communication and entertainment have become more similar since 2002, due to the rise of social networking sites.

 

Table G: U.S. college students use the Internet most often to:
*Note: Did not ask in 2002.
 20052002
(Jones, 2002)
Communicate socially4042
Be entertained2810
Engage in work for classes2238
Communicate professionally67
Not sure/Don’t know2.62
Be creative1—*
Make money<1—*

 

How does one account for the decrease in Internet use as primarily for classwork? We believe that we may be seeing a pattern that shows the Internet’s evolution for U.S. college students, from initial basic uses for e–mail and Web browsing, to Google and search functions (reference tool), to MySpace/Facebook and social networks (social communication), to video and music (entertainment). Any such evolution is bound to be somewhat non–linear, but it highlights the need for ongoing consideration and development of Rogers’ diffusion theory (2003). While we do not intent to imply that ours is a diffusion study, we believe that our findings show the potential opportunity for the design of research that examines the diffusion of Internet innovations throughout the U.S. college population. Furthermore, we believe our findings show that the development and uptake of particular Internet sites and applications requires concentration not only on surface elements such as content and use but also on context, labor, and value, and future research should seek to expand our knowledge of those. There is particularly a lack of longitudinal studies that track the same, preferably large, number of users over time.

Will college students’ seemingly increasingly languid attitudes toward Internet use mean that the innovation in Internet use and applications that have so regularly been spawned on campuses dry up? That is not likely, if only because there are undoubtedly many individual students who do not fit the general pattern, for whom the Internet is an obsession and developing new tools (and hacks) a passion. Nor does it mean that college students will ignore new applications as they develop. Quite the contrary; they remain eager early adopters, but they are more likely to use an application rather than tout or flout it.

It is likely that upon graduation college students will continue to be heavy Internet users. And, as new demands such as jobs and families become a part of their lives, they will likely incorporate Internet use into those new areas. The same seamlessness with which the Internet co–exists with their college life may elude them somewhat, particularly as they come to be responsible for their own connectivity at home, and move between jobs that may have better or worse access. But there is little question that the Internet is part of their communication, information, and entertainment “mix,” and that its absence would leave a notable gap not only in their social and leisure lives but also in their knowledge of everything from world affairs to movie show times.

A significant concern in the 2000s has been the degree to which young people, particularly college students, walk the line between appropriate and inappropriate (and sometimes legal and illegal) online behaviours. The two issues most in the news are related to downloading copyrighted content and posting private information. Concerning the former, while college students have been the regular target of lawsuits by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) the survey data show that just over half (51 percent) of college students reported being occasional or frequent music or video downloaders compared with 25 percent of the general U.S. population. Almost as many college students however (41 percent), reported never or almost never downloading music or videos. It may be that the RIAA’s actions are having an effect on college students’ downloading behavior, but it also may be that the proliferation of legitimate online sources of music has begun to shift downloading away from illegal sources. Nevertheless, almost two–thirds of college students (64 percent) reported using a file sharing application like Kazaa or BitTorrent, and thus it would seem that they are in general not daunted from sharing content online (for ethical reasons our survey did not ask whether they were sharing content legally or illegally).

Concerning college students’ understanding of the line between the personal and the public, our study shows that the majority of college students, nearly three–quarters, are at least somewhat concerned about the privacy of their personal data on the Internet (and only three percent are not at all concerned), but they continue to post personal information online. This is not a contradiction for them, but rather a matter of multiple definitions of the personal, private, and public. While they are concerned about the security of passwords, credit card numbers, and social security numbers, they are not very concerned about sharing what might seem like private behavior on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. The reason for their lack of concern is partly due to the degree to which these sites “feel” private; one “invites” friends to them, and the notion that they are easily viewed by anyone is often ignored, overlooked, or simply not learned. In some cases one’s home page and profile can be kept private, and the availability of the option may be enough to cause a user to believe it is private. (Perhaps if the sites were to reverse the option — that is, to require users to make sites public and by default make them private — less personal information would be publicly shared.) However aware they may be of online predation, security concerns, and the like, many college students simply do not believe that they will face significant consequences from posting private information online.

Thanks at least in part to social networking sites college students now have a broader social circle than ever before. As Facebook has made inroads in high schools and in the corporate sector it is becoming possible for college students to maintain connections to high school friends, and to maintain connections with college friends once they graduate and move into the workforce. The rise in popularity of these sites is not a surprise when viewed through the lens of today’s college students’ lives. It is not likely that today’s college students will have as vast an array of social network ‘options’ after they leave college if only because they are unlikely to be thrust again into a situation that immediately, and on a large scale, places them in close personal contact with so many new people. It may be that the social ties formed in college, both off–line and online, will become increasingly important as the number of new social contacts diminishes once one graduates from college. It would be particularly interesting to track today’s college students and monitor their social circles over time, perhaps along the lines of Michael Apted’s 7Up documentary film series to examine the ebb and flow of off–line and online social networks over the years. End of article

 

About the authors

Steve Jones is Professor of Communication and Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research interests include the social consequences of new media, media history, popular music studies and college students’ uses of media.
Direct comments to sjones [at] uic [dot] edu

Camille Johnson–Yale is a visiting lecturer in the department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests include media industries, communication technologies, and processes of cultural production.

Sarah Millermaier is a Master’s candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Francisco Seoane Pérez is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. His doctoral research is concerned with the so–called European communication gap. His area of expertise is political communication, in particular the role of journalism in democracies and the new avenues for political engagement opened by information and communication technologies.

 

Notes

1. Jones, 2002, p. 6.

2. Wilson, 1999, p. 1.

3. Wilson, 1999, p. 2.

4. Ibid.

5. Malaney, 2004–2005, p. 59.

6. Ibid.

7. Kvavik and Caruso, 2005, p. 14.

8. Bressers and Bergen, 2002, p. 39.

9. Anderson, 2001, p. 24.

10. Anderson, 2001, p. 25.

11. McMillan and Morrison, 2006, p. 89.

12. Cotten and Jelenewicz, 2006, p. 499.

13. Cotten and Jelenewicz, 2006, p. 500.

14. Ibid.

15. Jackson, et al., 2001, p. 374.

16. Peluchette and Karl, 2008, p. 96.

17. Cotten and Jelenewicz, 2006, p. 501.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 7 September 2009; accepted 23 September 2009.


Creative Commons License
“Everyday life, online: U.S. college students’ use of the Internet” by Steve Jones, Camille Johnson–Yale, Sarah Millermaier, Francisco Seoane Pérez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Everyday life, online: U.S. college students’ use of the Internet
by Steve Jones, Camille Johnson–Yale, Sarah Millermaier, and Francisco Seoane Pérez.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 10 - 5 October 2009
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2649/2301





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