Photo credit: Edward Lich, Pixabay.com
I'm a regional coordinator for EF High School Exchange Year, which brings up to 3,000 high school students to the U.S. every year for a semester or academic year. I see both the benefits modern technology has brought to international communications -- and the costs, as I watch our students having more difficulty every year immersing themselves into their host culture. I first published this post on my blog almost two years ago. It still holds true.
Indeed, I just had a meeting a few days ago with one of my students and her host parents to talk about concerns expressed by the host parents about behavior as well as frustrations expressed by the student that she didn't feel like a member of the family. I learned that the student was spending so much time online with friends and family back home that she has not really integrated into her host family or community. Whenever she has a question, she asks someone back home. Whenever she is upset or anxious, she confides in someone back home. Whenever she just wants to chat about life, she talks to someone back home. She texts or talks to friends back home first thing in the morning before she leaves for school, and she texts them during the day.
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 technological changes we have seen in communications have provided advantages in the international education arena. Students can use online programs to improve their language skills. They can easily socialize ahead of time with other students going to the same country, as well as with their host families. This can help to form early bonds that will be important in their initial weeks and months in a foreign place. After they arrive in their host country, the resources and connections provided by social media 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 use social media and the Internet generally to gain knowledge about their host country and learn something about the school they will attend and the 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 turn to friends and family when they feel overwhelmed by the differences and strangeness of their host culture. A research paper I read 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.”
This isn't a surprise. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and more all share the common attribute of making it easier to “talk” about issues that once upon a time we only talked about in person. But does this “ease of access” really help? For some students, it may not make much difference. These students are still able to ground themselves wherever they are, and can make the needed connections to adapt to their host country.
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 to their host culture and barriers to their ability to connect to host family and host community. Students are showing up so attached to their smart phones that they truly cannot conceive of putting them down.Too much of a good thing
Another study I read recently noted the positive aspects of how students can use the Internet and social media, while noting the danger of becoming overly attached:
“[O]ne 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.”
An example: before arriving in the U.S., one of my students asked me repeatedly 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. How will she know what is going on back home?
Once here, she was glued to the phone. We would be out together, and her phone would do the tell-tale buzz. She would drop her eyes and read the message while I was talking. She would start texting with no explanation while I was talking. Her phone would ring and she would answer it immediately even if I was in the middle of a sentence.
I’ve been supervising and working with high school students for some time now, and I’m not worried about saying no -- and I did, with this student and others. The harder part is within the host family. Host parents may not be as secure, especially in the beginning of the year, in saying “that is not acceptable.” They may worry that they *are* being unfair: their poor student is thousands of miles from home. Who are they to say their student cannot talk to friends or family whenever they want?
It’s not just about training our host families to recognize that it’s OK to be a parent to their student. It’s about understanding why it is often a good idea to limit the dizzying amount of communication. Immersion is not a hard word to understand . . . but it’s a tough concept to implement. This 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?
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. Students and their families communicated by letters (remember those?) which might take a week or more 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.
Photo credit: Alejandro Escamilla, Unsplash.com
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 friends and 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 all our children how to use these options wisely. Let’s not allow it to get in the way of life and real communication. For our international students, 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.
Visit my blog, The Exchange Mom, for more posts and info about international exchange!
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