When walking around campus, Elon University instructional technologist Michael Vaughn often notices one student or another engaged in an intimate relationship. With a cellphone.
Such common cases have caused Vaughn to question the role of the phone and the endless world of distraction such devices bring — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to name a popular few. He’s concerned, to say the least.
During each New Student Orientation weekend, Vaughn gives a “Connected at Elon” presentation to explain the evolution and impact of social media. This year, he challenged his audience to spend more time communicating with people in person.
Today, Vaughn notices that his words may have not changed the majority of students’ behavior.
“I think that you would get a lot more ... walking around campus with a group of people than with a digital group,” Vaughn said. “The challenge will come in finding a balance with where technology fits into your life, because it can easily overtake quality social experiences that you can have in the real world.”
An introvert at heart, Vaughn understands the difficulties that come with face-to-face conversations. But he said the effort to improve interpersonal skills is well worth the burden.
Vaughn supports the cautious use of technology, but thinks discretion is important, too — especially when it comes to social media.
While he continues to use popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Vaughn is constantly exploring what other under-the-radar networks have to offer. One that has peaked his interest is Flipboard, an app where users can create customizable magazines.
His biggest reluctance to use such networks comes from a healthy fear of privacy. According to Vaughn, the lack of privacy on some of these social networks presents a problem.
“Most Facebook privacy settings default to friends of friends, and that network is enormous,” Vaughn said. “If you have the average number of Facebook friends, which is around 230 or 240, and each of them has 230-240 Facebook friends, your network could easily be 60,000 or more that you’re sharing information without realizing it.”
For Facebook users who have no plans to leave the network soon, Vaughn recommended making one’s profile as public as possible. But if that is the case, posts should only present positive stories and photos that include the user working with a volunteer organization or participating in sports.
Vaughn said it’s important to operate under the assumption that everything is going to be made public, anyway, so locking down profiles with privacy settings isn’t the best solution.
Although Vaughn recognizes that the lack of privacy on Facebook is problematic, he wants all users, regardless of share settings, to utilize social media with caution by avoiding publishing explicit content.
Unlike Facebook, some social networks, like Twitter, limit the amount of text that can be posted. Companies and individuals utilizing this media platform must be able to condense their ideas to highlight the key points.
“On a site like Twitter, you have to be very effective at using your words,” Vaughn said. “Some people do that by shortening the words or by using acronyms, but other people take time to deliberate and think ‘How do I get this across?’”
Some Elon students have temporarily abandoned social networking sites altogether. First-year Tyler Hess, for one, was required to complete a weeklong challenge for Ethical Practice, taught by Amy Glaser, adjunct instructor of philosophy.
His challenge was to abandon social media for a week. Although it was difficult for him to break out of the habit of checking sites like Facebook and Twitter while walking to and from classes, he admits that it became easier to do so over time.
“It’s not necessarily hard to give up social media,” Hess said. “I don’t really use social media like other people do. I’ll feel for my phone and read something else instead.”
Other students couldn’t go one day without their digital device of choice.
“Every morning, I usually check [social media] and then before I go to bed,” said first-year Marissa Baum. “If I find myself waiting for a class or waiting for my food, I usually fill it with checking social media.”
Although social media is often viewed as a gratifying tool for instant communication, Vaughn maintained that it is damaging interpersonal skills and meaningful interactions.
“We need to make time for face-to-face interactions too without phones, without social networks and without laptops,” he said.