International students' social media use and social adjustment
First Monday

International students' social media use and social adjustment by Hyunjin Seo, Ren-Whei Harn, Husain Ebrahim, and Jose Aldana



Abstract
Based on a survey of international students enrolled in a U.S. university, this study examines how social media use is associated with perceived social support and adjustment when demographic and social psychological characteristics are controlled for. Our research shows that level of social media use is positively associated with level of perceived social adjustment but not with level of perceived social support. International students don’t feel comfortable discussing their distress via social media due to complex cultural internetworking present in the online networking sphere. The results of this study indicate that in studying this topic we should take into account both common challenges in getting social support online and special circumstances facing international students. The current study offers scholarly and policy implications for providing relevant social, academic, and professional resources to international students in the United States — a group that has significantly grown in numbers in the past decade.

Contents

Introduction
Previous studies and theoretical frameworks
Methods
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Popular social media sites have become important channels through which individuals share news and information and manage social ties (Ellison and boyd, 2013; Fox and Rainie, 2014). In this study, social media refer to a group of digital platforms that allow people to create and exchange user-generated content directly with other people (Gray, et al., 2013; Kaplan and Hanelein, 2010). By social network site, we mean a digital platform developed specifically to create personal profiles, develop new connections, and sustain existing relationships through interactions mediated by that platform (Ellison and boyd, 2013; Greenhow, 2011). Even within one social network site, people form subgroups achieving different types of relational goals (Aaen and Dalsgaard, 2016). Social media include not only social network sites but also discussion or publishing platforms such as online discussion boards and forums.

Indeed, 67 percent of U.S. Internet users reported that social media contributed to strengthening relationships with their family and friends (Fox and Rainie, 2014). Moreover, relationships facilitated through social media can help people adjust to new environments and cope with challenging issues especially when they enter into a new environment, culture, or country (Lin, et al., 2012). This is particularly relevant for new college students who go through major changes in terms of their academic and living environments (Feldt, et al., 2011; Ponzetti, 1990; Ross, et al., 1999; Tinto, 1993). In addition, college students are more likely to use social media sites for relevant social support or adjustment given their high levels of social media use on a daily basis. According to a national report on college students in the United States, 85 percent of them had a profile on an online social network site such as Facebook as of 2008 (Jensen and Peace, 2008). A 2014 report shows that 89% of people ages between 18 and 29 in the United States use Facebook (Duggan, et al., 2015).

The interplay of social media, social support, and social adjustment is particularly relevant to international students enrolled in U.S. universities — a group that has significantly grown in numbers in the past decade (Institute of International Education, 2014). These international students have additional challenges as they undergo college experiences in a different country. New cultures, language problems, and lack of existing social relations in the host country might aggravate academic and social challenges that already face even college students studying in their home country (Sherry, et al., 2010). Digital communication technologies can potentially contribute to international students getting relevant social support and serve as a resource for both helping them stay connected with family or friends in their home country and making new friends or professional connections in the host country (Kim, et al., 2009; Li and Chen, 2014; Ye, 2006).

Better understanding potential roles of social media in social support and social adjustment of international students in the United States is important, especially given the growing number of international students in the United States and the increased significance of social media in their lives. The total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges reached a record high of 974,926 as of 2015, accounting for 4.2 percent of the total students in the U.S. higher education during the period (Institute of International Education, 2014). However, there is insufficient research on this topic. In particular, little research has investigated how international students’ social psychology and social media use combine to influence perceived levels of social support and social adjustment.

The current study is aimed at addressing this gap in the literature by conducting a survey with international students at a large U.S. public university in the Midwest. This research examines types of social relations international students nurture through different social media sites; associations between social media behaviors and social psychological characteristics such as self-efficacy and collective self-esteem; and how international students’ social media use and social psychological characteristics are associated with their perceived social support and social adjustment. In doing so, we controlled for basic demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and time spent at a U.S. higher education institution.

This study will help scholars understand how existing theoretical perspectives and empirical findings in the areas of social media, social support, and social adjustment apply to this particular group that has been understudied. The results of the study will also help higher education administrators and policy-makers better understand effects of social media use on social support and social adjustment for international students in the United States. This may ultimately contribute to identifying areas of improvement in helping international students better adjust to their universities in the United States and lives in the United States in general.

 

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Previous studies and theoretical frameworks

Social support and adjustment for international students

Adjusting to a college life is considered one of the most challenging experiences that young adults go through (Feldt, et al., 2011; Tinto, 1993). This is the period when most young adults have an increased level of autonomy and experience living outside their parental household for the first time. In addition, their identities are reconsidered, as their worldviews and values are challenged by new academic and social circles (Kaufman and Feldman, 2004; Murray and Kennedy-Lightsey, 2013). Previous research shows that new responsibilities, changes in sleeping and eating habits, and increased workload are major sources of stress for college students (Gray, et al., 2013; Ross, et al., 1999). College students are also pressured to be integrated not only academically but also socially to succeed in the college setting (Murray and Kennedy-Lightsey, 2013; Tinto, 1993).

In addition to these challenges that young adults often face in their college years, international students enrolled in higher education institutions outside of their home countries deal with other potential sources of stress (Lin, et al., 2012; Park, et al., 2014; Sherry, et al., 2010). Some of the common problems facing international students are language proficiency issues, new societal and cultural norms, academic differences, and financial stress. Moreover, previous research shows that international students often feel lonely because of not only lack of strong social networks in their new environment but also lack of familiar cultural, societal, and linguistic environments (Sherry, et al., 2010). Previous studies show that the number of friends that international students have positively affected how successful they are in the new environment (Furnham and Alibhai, 1985).

How international students might deal with these challenges could be explained from the perspectives of social support (Cohen and Syme, 1985; Cohen and Wills, 1985; Gerdes and Mallinckrodt, 1994; Gray, et al., 2013; Li, et al., 2015). Based on their longitudinal research on college students’ emotional, social, and academic adjustment, Gerdes and Mallinckrodt (1994) suggested that a local support network is essential for students’ adjustment to college. This is in line with other studies in social support showing that individuals with family members or friends who provide psychological and material resources tend to maintain healthier and happier lives (Cohen and Syme, 1985; Mitchell, et al., 1982). Social support is shown to buffer an individual’s stress by offering emotional and other types of support to the individual (Cobb, 1976; Cohen and Wills, 1985). As Cobb (1976) noted, social support makes an individual feel “cared for,” “esteemed and valued,” and belong to “a network of communication and mutual obligation.”

Previous studies show that those studying at institutions in another country tend to belong to three types of social networks: (i) a conational or monocultural network; (ii) a network with host nationals or bi-cultural network; and, (iii) a multinational network (Bochner, et al., 1977; Furnham and Alibhai, 1985). A conational network is a monocultural network composed of friends from their home country, which provides “a setting in which ethnic and cultural values can be rehearsed and expressed” [1]. A network with host nationals or a bi-cultural network refers to bonds between international students and host nationals such as peers, professors, or academic advisors. The main function of this network is to “facilitate instrumentally the academic and professional aspirations” of international students [2]. The primary function of a multi-cultural network is to “provide companionship for recreational, non-cultural and non-task oriented activities” [3]. Both Bochner, et al.’s (1977) study with Far Eastern students at the University of Hawaii and Furnham and Alibhai’s (1985) study with international students in London who are from 35 different countries found that the conational or monocultural network comprised of friends from their home country was the most significant social network for international students.

While these studies are helpful in understanding social relations international students forge, more up-to-date research is needed on how social media have influenced the composition of their social networks. Consequently, it is important to understand how international students’ online social networking influences their perceived levels of social support and social adjustment. In the next section, we explore how social media have affected college students’ communication behaviors and potential implications of social media use for social support and adjustment.

Roles of social media in social support and adjustment

Social media can play an important role in international students receiving relevant social support and acquiring resources for adjusting to college experiences in a different country. Increasingly, young adults around the world manage their social ties through popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram (Gray, et al., 2013; International World Stats, 2015; Li and Chen, 2014). In particular, college students tend to be heavier users of the Internet and digital communication technologies compared with the general population (Duggan, et al., 2015; Jensen and Peace, 2008; Jones, 2002; Wilson, et al., 2010). A national report on college students in the United States shows that 85 percent of college students had a profile on an online social network site such as Facebook as of 2008 (Jensen and Peace, 2008). About 55 percent of the survey participants indicated that they “participated in online social networks” more than five times per week and 13 percent said three–five times per week. In addition, about 47 percent of college students surveyed answered that they thought college administrators look at their online profile. According to Wilson, et al.’s (2010) study of college students in Australia, some college students demonstrate even addictive tendency toward social network sites, as they rely more and more on those sites for interacting with others. In addition, latest research studies on people’s use of social media suggest that young adults’ dependence on social media for social connections has continued to increase not only in the United States but across the globe (Duggan, et al., 2015; Fox and Rainie, 2014; International World Stats, 2015). These reports suggest that international students in the United States are likely to use social media as their primary channel for communicating with people in the United States and in their home country.

While some research suggested a negative relationship between Facebook use and academic performance among college students (Karpinski and Duberstein, 2009), most studies indicate that positives of college students’ social media use outweigh negatives (Gray, et al., 2013; Pasek, et al., 2009). One of the potential advantages is the role of social media in providing technical affordances for college students to easily stay connected with their friends even if they are attending a higher education institution in another state or country as well as to facilitate building new social and professional connections at the new institution. Previous research suggested that digital communication channels like instant messaging contributed to college students’ positive academic experiences by facilitating their interactions with peers and connections with other social networks.

These social media platforms are potential venues for international students to receive relevant social support. In this age of online social networking, people often seek support through popular social media sites or specific online support groups (Ellison, et al., 2013; Hollenbaugh and Ferris, 2015; Li, et al., 2015; Matzat and Rooks, 2014). Based on an analysis of 20,000 Facebook posts, Ellison, et al. (2013) found that people utilized Facebook to request low-cost support such as information seeking. A survey of 301 Facebook users by Hollenbaugh and Ferris (2015) also show that some people seek companionship via Facebook. They also found that Facebook users who utilized the social network site for maintaining relationships were more likely to be honest, intentional, and positive than users with different motivations. In addition, a survey of 195 international students at a U.S. university found that students who engaged with their U.S. friends via Facebook more frequently were more likely to generate online bridging capital (Lin, et al., 2012). These studies indicate that social media have potential to help international students receive social support and better adjust socially and academically.

Effects of social psychology on social media use and social adjustment

International students’ social psychological characteristics can influence both their use of social media, perceived social support, and social adjustment. Previous studies showed that individuals’ social psychological characteristics influence how much time they spend on social media and why or how they use social media (Barker, 2009; Crocker and Luhtanen, 1990; Seo, et al., 2014; Tajfel, 1981; Zullig, et al., 2011). Some of the variables that have been found to influence people’s social media use are social self-efficacy and collective self-esteem (Barker, 2009; Crocker and Luhtanen, 1990; Seo, et al., 2014; Tajfel, 1981). Social self-efficacy is defined as an individual’s belief that he or she is competent in building new friendships (Zullig, et al., 2011). Previous research shows that individuals with higher self-efficacy tend to more actively use social network sites and participate in social gatherings (Seo, et al., 2014).

Collective self-esteem refers to an individual’s self-concept influenced by “the value and emotional significance” attached to his or her membership in a social group as well as knowledge of that membership (Barker, 2009; Crocker and Luhtanen, 1990; Seo, et al., 2014; Tajfel, 1981). Collective self-esteem is related to group identification. Previous research showed that old adolescents with a higher level of group identification and positive collective self-esteem are more likely to use online social network sites to keep in touch with their close peer groups (Barker, 2009). In contrast, old adolescents with negative collective self-esteem often look for virtual companionship or social compensation. In addition, collective self-esteem is associated with self-identity (Kaufman and Feldman, 2004; Ledbetter, et al., 2011; Murray and Kennedy-Lightsey, 2013; Pelling and White, 2009). Based on interviews with 82 college students, Kaufman and Feldman (2004) found that a college student’s sense of self or self-identity is negatively affected if the student finds it difficult to identify with the overall university community. In addition, Murray and Kennedy-Lightsey (2013) suggested that college students who lack self-esteem are more likely to experience the negative effects that accompany identity gaps.

Hypotheses

Based on the previous theoretical and empirical studies on relevant issues, we propose the following hypotheses for our study on international students’ use of social media, social support, and social adjustment. Our hypothesis model is shown in Figure 1.

 

Hypothesis model

 

Hypothesis 1: International students’ social psychological characteristics would be positively associated with their social media use even after controlling for their demographic characteristics. Specifically, the higher the level of social self-efficacy and collective self-esteem, the higher their level of social media use.

Hypothesis 2a: International students’ social psychological characteristics would be positively associated with their social support even after controlling for their demographic characteristics. Specifically, the higher the level of social self-efficacy and collective self-esteem, the higher their perceived level of social support.

Hypothesis 2b: International students’ social psychological characteristics would be positively associated with their perceived social support even after controlling for their demographic characteristics. Specifically, the higher the level of social self-efficacy and collective self-esteem, the higher their perceived level of social adjustment.

Hypothesis 3a: Level of social media use by international students would be positively associated with level of perceived social support in the United States even after controlling for their demographic and social psychological characteristics.

Hypothesis 3b: Level of social media use by international students would be positively associated with level of social adjustment in the United States even after controlling for their demographic and social psychological characteristics.

Hypothesis 4: Level of perceived social support would be positively associated with level of social adjustment even when controlling for international students’ demographic and social psychological characteristics and level of social media use.

 

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Methods

An online survey of international students attending a large, public university in the Midwest was conducted to examine their use of social media, perceived social support and social adjustment, and social psychological and demographic characteristics. An initial survey questionnaire was developed based on the review of the literature discussed in the previous section and further refined through three focus groups with international students at the university. We then conducted a pre-test of the questionnaire on a sample of 15 international students recruited via e-mail. The participants in the survey pre-test were asked to complete the survey and identify questions or answer options that were unclear or difficult to understand. Based on the feedback from those who participated in the pre-test, we finalized our survey questionnaire that included a total of 28 questions in a mostly closed-ended format. The online survey was created on Qualtrics.com, one of the leading online survey platforms. The university’s institutional review board (IRB) approved the survey questionnaire and participant recruitment methods described below.

Sampling

A total of 2,145 international students from more than 100 countries were enrolled in a Midwestern university in 2015. These include 1,019 undergraduate students, 1,030 graduate students, and 96 students enrolled in the university’s English language institute. The largest number of international students came from China accounting for 36 percent of the international students during the academic semester. China was followed by India (12 percent), Saudi Arabia (eight percent), and South Korea (five percent).

This pattern is largely in line with the overall composition of international students in the United States (Institute of International Education, 2014). According to the U.S. Institute of International Education (2014), international students enrolled in U.S. colleges reached a record high of 886,052 as of 2014, a significant increase from 586,323 in 2003. International students accounted for 4.2 percent of the total students in the U.S. higher education in 2014. In terms of country of origin, China sent the largest number of students to the United States with 31 percent of international students in the United States coming from the world’s most populist country in 2014. China was followed by India (11.6 percent), South Korea (7.7 percent), and Saudi Arabia (6.1 percent).

To recruit survey participants, we contacted international student organizations at the university. Consequently, the student organizations distributed the survey link to their members via e-mail and other digital media channels. Our survey questionnaire included multiple screening questions to filter out those who did not qualify for the survey.

Measurements

Social psychological variables. This survey examined international students’ social self-efficacy and collective self-esteem — social psychological variables shown to be associated with use of social media (e.g., Barker, 2009; Gangadharbatla, 2008; Seo, et al., 2014; Zullig, et al., 2011). Questions used in the previous studies were adjusted to make them relevant to the current study.

Eight items, adapted from previous studies measuring social self-efficacy (Seo, et al., 2014; Zullig, et al., 2011), were used to measure the international student’s social self-efficacy. They are: (1) “How well can you express your opinions when friends or classmates disagree with you?”; (2) “How well can you become friends with other people your age?”; (3) “How well can you have a chat with an unfamiliar person?”; (4) “How well can you work in harmony with your classmates or co-workers?”; (5) “How well can you tell other people your age that you are doing something they don’t like?”; (6) “How well can you tell a funny story to a group your age?”; (7) “How well do you succeed in staying friends with people your age?”; and, (8) “How well do you succeed in preventing quarrels with other people your age?” To test the reliability of the social self-efficacy scale based on the eight items, we conducted Cronbach’s alpha test. The reliability value (α) was .89, which was acceptable.

To measure collective self-esteem, we used seven items adapted from previous studies (Barker, 2009; Crocker and Luhtanen, 1990; Seo, et al., 2014; Tajfel, 1981). Specifically, we asked the participate to indicate a level of agreement on each of the following seven statements: (1) “I am a worthy member of the groups or organizations that I belong to”; (2) “Overall, my groups or organizations are considered good by others”; (3) “In general, I am glad to be a member of the groups or organizations that I belong to”; (4) “The groups or organizations I belong to are an important reflection of who I am”; (5) “I am a cooperative participant in the groups or organizations I belong to”; (6) “In general, others respect the groups or organizations that I am a member of”; and, (7) “In general, belonging to groups or organizations is an important part of my self image.” Cronbach’s alpha test indicated that the index was reliable (α = .93).

Social support and adjustment. We measured level of social support that international students perceive to receive by asking how much support they get from potential sources of support during an emotionally stressful situation. The potential sources that the participants were asked to rate included family in the home country, friends in the home country, family in the United States, friends from the home country who currently study or live in the United States, friends in the United States who are from other countries whose cultures are similar to that of the home country, U.S. friends and colleagues in the United States, advisers from the school, and appropriate university offices. An index of perceived social support was created based on the scores assigned to the items, and it was reliable based on Cronbach’s alpha test (α = .82).

In addition, we measured level of international students’ adaption to the United States and the university by measuring social adjustment and university attachment (Baker and Siryk, 1989; Gray, et al., 2013; Hurtado, et al., 1996). Survey questions for this variable covered their experiences with different aspects of adjustment to the United States (e.g., adjusting to U.S. lifestyles, making friends with people in the United States, and making professional connections), their involvement with university social activities, satisfaction with their social life, and university attachment (“I am pleased about attending this university” and “I expect to finish my degree at this university”). Cronbach’s alpha test indicated that an index based on these multiple items was reliable (α = .81).

Social media use. Multiple items were adopted to measure use of social media by international students. First, we asked how frequently they use popular social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and YouTube. The list also included social media platforms popular in certain countries such as WeChat and Sina Weibo for China. Given the dominance of Facebook around the world (Duggan, et al., 2015; International World Stats, 2015), we asked additional questions about their Facebook use including number of friends and how long they have used Facebook. Additionally, we asked types of Facebook friends, Facebook friends most gained since coming to the United States, and primary reasons for them to use social media.

Demographics. To examine survey respondents’ demographic characteristics, we asked them to indicate their home country, gender, age, marital status, race, and whether they live with family members in the United States. Academic-related questions under this category included level of study, major, number of years attending the U.S. university, and number of years studying in the United States.

 

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Results

Demographic characteristics of survey participants. A total of 204 international students enrolled in the U.S. university participated in the survey. Key demographic characteristics of the survey participants are summarized in Table 1. As discussed below, the composition of the survey participants in terms of region, nationality, level of study, gender, and age range was comparable to that of the entire international student body of the university (the study population from which the sample was drawn).

 

Characteristics of survey participants

 

About 53.9 percent of the students were from Asia — 29.4 percent from East Asia including China and South Korea and 23.4 percent of the students from South or Southeast Asia including India and Singapore. In addition, 31.4 percent students were from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, primarily from South Arabia and Kuwait. About 10.3 percent of the participants were from South or Central America such as Brazil or Bolivia. This is comparable to the population of this study. In 2015, about 60 percent of international students at the university came from Asia — mostly from China (36 percent), followed by India (12 percent), and South Korea (five percent). MENA is the second most significant region that comprises the university’s international student body with South Arabia and Kuwait leading the group.

About 49 percent of the participants in the survey were graduate students, 47.5 percent undergraduate students, and 3.9 percent were students taking English-language courses at the university’s English language center. This study level composition of the survey participants is also in line with that of the university (see the Methods section). The proportion of male students (63.6 percent) in the survey was higher than that of female students (36.4 percent) reflecting the fact that the university has more male international students than female international students. The majority of the survey participants attended the university between one year and less than three years (52.1 percent). About 20 percent of the students attended the university between three years and less than five years, and 19.5 percent of the students reported attending the university less than a year. In terms of age distributions, international students ages 21–24 accounted for 38.7 percent of the survey participants, followed by those ages 17–20 (22.1 percent) and those ages 25–28 (20.1 percent).

Social media use. Facebook was the most widely used social media site among the international students with 96.7 percent of them having an account with the world’s most popular social network site. More than a half of the participants (60.7 percent) reported that they have used Facebook for more than five years. In addition, of the various social media sites available, the survey participants reported spending most time on Facebook (M = 6.85, SD = 1.70, on a scale of 1 to 7), followed by YouTube (M = 6.84, SD = 1.61), WhatsApp (M = 6.08, SD = 2.57), Instagram (M = 4.83, SD = 2.57), and SnapChat (M = 4.47, SD = 2.73).

In terms of the number of friends connected via Facebook, about 40.3 percent of the international students said the number of their Facebook friends was between 100 and 399, and 37.5 percent had 400–699 friends on Facebook. About 18.8 percent of the students reported having 700 or more friends on Facebook with 9.7 percent having 1,000 or more friends. When asked to rank different groups of people based on how many from each group are connected with them via Facebook, friends in the home country was the most significant, followed by friends or colleagues from the home country who currently study or live in the United States, family in the home country, and friends or colleagues of host nationals, in this case, the United States.

Hypothesis 1 (Social psychology and social media use). The results of the hypothesis testing are shown in Figure 2 and Table 2. Hypothesis 1 proposed that international students’ social psychological characteristics would be positively associated with their social media use even after controlling for their demographic characteristics. As explained in the Methods section, the dependent variable (social media use) was an index of time spent on various social media sites. Self-efficacy and collective self-esteem, both index variables, were used to measure social psychological characteristics of international students. Demographic variables controlled for this analysis include age, years spent at the university, and gender.

 

Path analysis results

 

 

Characteristics of survey participants

 

A hierarchical regression model showed that the social psychological characteristics do not influence international students’ level of social media use when the demographic characteristics are controlled for (Δ R2 = .03, F = 2.24, p = .11). The results show that neither social self-efficacy (β = .11, t = 1.13, p = .26) nor collective self-esteem (β = .07, t = .72, p = .46) was significantly associated with international students’ use of social media. Thus, Hypothesis 1 was not supported.

Hypothesis 2a (Social psychology and social support). Hypothesis 2a stated that international students’ social psychological characteristics would be positively associated with their perceived social support even after controlling for their demographic characteristics. Level of social support they perceived receiving from family members in the United States was the most significant (M = 5.78, SD = 1.64), followed by friends or colleagues in the home country (M = 5.39, SD = 1.71), friends or colleagues from the home country who currently study or live in the United States (M = 5.01, SD = 1.81), friends or colleagues from other countries than their home country or the United States who cultures are similar to that in the home country (M = 4.42, SD = 1.86), and friends or colleagues who are U.S. citizens (M = 4.17, SD = 1.88).

As shown in Table 2, the social psychological characteristics significantly influence international students’ perceived social support even when the demographic characteristics are controlled for (Δ R2 = .05, F = 3.70, p < .05). Specifically, the results show that level of self-efficacy is positively associated with level of perceived social support (β = .17, t = 1.72, p < .05). However, collective self-esteem was not a significant predictor of social support (β = .06, t = .62, p = .53). Thus, Hypothesis 2a was partially supported.

Hypothesis 2b (Social psychology and social adjustment). Hypothesis 2b posited that international students’ social psychological characteristics would be positively associated with their social adjustment even after controlling for their demographic characteristics. The survey participants reported that making friends with people from the home country who currently study or live in the United States was the easiest adjustment (M = 5.52, SD = 1.92), followed by making friends with people from countries other than the home country or the United States (M = 4.60, SD = 1.76), adjusting to U.S. lifestyles (M = 4.24, SD = 1.86), and making friends with U.S. students or other U.S. people (M = 3.70, SD = 1.76). The international students tend to show high levels of attachment to the university with the mean of student responses on how pleased they are about attending the university being 5.24 out of 7 (SD = 1.51) and the mean for expecting to finish the degree at the university being 5.53 (SD = 1.84).

A hierarchical regression model showed that the social psychological characteristics significantly influence international students’ levels of social adjustment even when the demographic characteristics are controlled for (Δ R2 = .18, F = 12.63, p < .001). Specifically, the results show that level of collective self-esteem is positively associated with level of social adjustment (β = .30, t = 2.86, p < .01). However, social self-efficacy was not a significant predictor of social adjustment (β = .17, t = 1.58, p = .16). Thus, Hypothesis 2b was partially supported.

Hypothesis 3a (Social media use and social support). Hypothesis 3a posited that level of social media use by the international student would be positively associated with level of the student’s perceived social support even after controlling for demographic and social psychological characteristics of the student. A hierarchical regression analysis shows that social media use is not a significant predictor of perceived social support of international students when demographic and social psychological characteristics are controlled for (Δ R2 = .01, F = 2.34, p = .12). There was no statistically significant relationship between level of social media use and level of social support in this analysis (β = .12, t = 1.53, p = .12). Therefore, hypothesis 3a was not supported.

Hypothesis 3b (Social media use and social adjustment). Hypothesis 3b posited that level of social media use by the international student would be positively associated with level of social adjustment in the United States even after controlling for demographic and social psychological characteristics of the student. A hierarchical regression analysis shows that social media use is a significant predictor of social adjustment of international students even when demographic and social psychological characteristics are controlled for (Δ R2 = .05, F = 7.17, p < .01). Specifically, level of social media use was positively associated with level of social adjustment (β = .23, t = 2.67, p < .01). The results support Hypothesis 3b.

Hypothesis 4 (Social support and social adjustment). Hypothesis 4 suggested that level of perceived social support would be positively associated with level of social adjustment even when controlling for international students’ demographic and social psychological characteristics and level of social media use. Our hierarchical regression analysis shows that there is no statistically significant relationship between social support and social adjustment (β = -.19, t = -2.11, p = .06) when demographic and social psychological variables and social media use are controlled for (Δ R2 = .03, F = 4.43, p = .06). Therefore, Hypothesis 4 was not supported.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

Through a survey of international students enrolled at a large U.S. public university in the Midwest, we examined how social media use is associated with social support and social adjustment of international students. In doing so, we considered both demographic and social psychological characteristics of the survey participants.

One of the most interesting findings of this research is that level of social media use is positively associated with level of perceived social adjustment but not with level of perceived social support. The significantly positive relationship between social media use and social adjustment is in line with previous research showing international students with active social or professional connections with host nationals or a healthy local social network tend to adjust better to the life in the host country (Bochner, et al., 1977; Furnham and Alibhai, 1985; Gerdes and Mallinckrodt, 1994). Our survey results indicate that those who spend more time on social media tend to have a greater number of social connections on social media sites who are U.S. citizens or students from the home country or other countries currently studying in the United States. Previous research by Gerdes and Mallinckrodt (1994) found that a local support network is important for students’ adjustment to college, and that seems to be true for international students as well. This finding also aligns with the functional model of international students’ social networks (Bochner, et al., 1977; Furnham and Alibhai, 1985). The functional model posited that bi-cultural networking — international students’ bonds with host nationals such as peers or advisors — facilitate academic and professional aspirations of international students. It should be noted, however, social networks of international students in this digital media age are more complex and intertwined than the functional model suggested. Types of social networks proposed by the functional model (Bochner, et al., 1977; Furnham and Alibhai, 1985) — a conational or monocultural network, a network with host nationals or bi-cultural network, and a multinational network — are still relevant and helpful in understanding social ties of international students. With digital media allowing speedy communication with people in different geographic areas, however, international students often maintain a high level of active communication with their family and friends in the home country even after leaving for higher education in another country. Moreover, one-to-many and many-to many communication technology affordances provided by social media sites facilitate interactions with multiple types of social networks at the same time and support broader networking. Therefore, it is important to update existing models on international students’ social networks to take into account new types of social ties and interactions between those ties. Findings from this research should be helpful in this endeavor.

The non-significant relationship between social media use and level of perceived social support might be explained by the fact that international students typically do not consider social network sites as an important venue for discussing their problems. The majority of the international students participated in our survey indicated that they don’t feel comfortable discussing emotionally stressful situations via social network sites. The same theme emerged during our focus groups with international students. As described in our Methods section, we conducted several focus groups to help better construct our survey questionnaire. A Chinese student in one focus group said, “I never share anything about relationships or personal emotions on Facebook, but sometimes I share positive emotions on WeChat because my parents can look there.” WeChat is a messenger app popular in China where Facebook is not allowed. That is, international students are concerned that they might alarm their family in the home country if they shared difficulties or distress faced in the United States. In addition, given the fact that many weak ties are connected via social network sites, international students tend to hesitate to disclose their stressful situations and seek emotional support via popular social network sites. In fact, this is in line with a previous study based on a survey of college students that found no association between intensity of Facebook use and perceived social support (Li, et al., 2015).

Cultural complexity is another aspect of international students’ social connections that may pose additional challenges for how students present themselves online. Erving Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical model of social life provides a useful framework for this. According to Goffman, as with actors on a stage, everyday people play different roles. Thus, social interaction can differ depending on the region — front stage, back stage, and off-stage. With “audience segregation,” specific performances are given to specific audiences. Similarly, social media users may present themselves differently depending on their anticipated audiences. For international students, social media-based social interaction is more complex due to anticipated cultural differences among audiences as well as within ties connected via social media.

Our survey results showed that international students are connected with different types of groups with various cultural backgrounds on Facebook — for example, family and friends in the home country, people from the home country currently studying or living in the United States, people from countries whose cultures are similar to that in the home country, and U.S. friends or colleagues. International students might worry that seeking social support online might be risky as they are not sure how their posts might interpreted by people with different cultural backgrounds. Indeed, previous research shows that as social connections on popular social media sites become more complex, people have realized that signals for help often go unnoticed (Hollenbaugh and Ferris, 2015). Another study indicated that people under distress sometimes feel that their existing social connections are not sufficient at offering the necessary support, as situations and personal experiences are different (Cummings, et al., 2002). Therefore, we should take into account both common challenges of getting social support online and special circumstances facing international students such as cultural uncertainties of seeking social support online in understanding the effects of social media use on social support and social adjustment.

This study also showed that level of collective self-esteem is associated with level of perceived social adjustment. Specifically, we found that the higher the international student’s level of collective self-esteem, the higher the level of social adjustment. Collective self-esteem refers to an individual’s self-concept influenced by “the value and emotional significance” attached to his or her membership in a social group as well as knowledge of that membership (Barker, 2009; Crocker and Luhtanen, 1990; Seo, et al., 2014; Tajfel, 1981). Collective self-esteem is associated with self-identity in that it is related to how an individual identifies himself or herself in relation to a social group (Kaufman and Feldman, 2004; Ledbetter, et al., 2011; Murray and Kennedy-Lightsey, 2013; Pelling and White, 2009). For international students in the United States, they tend to explore multiple groups with which they identify. Those groups include (i) other international students in the United States who come from the same country; (ii) international students who come from countries with similar cultures; and, (iii) and the larger university student body composed primarily of U.S. students. Our research showed that most international students after coming to the United States easily make friends with students from their home country or from countries whose cultures are similar to that in their home country. They reported that making friends with U.S. students is not as easy. Indeed, it has been widely discussed that in general U.S. students and international students in the United States tend not to integrate well with each other (Stahl, 2012). However, when international students can build positive collective self-esteem with any of these groups, they can better navigate issues in the United States.

Limitations and future research. As with any social science research, this study has some limitations. While demographic characteristics of the survey participants are representative of those of the international body of the university under study, the findings cannot be generalized to a larger group of international students in the United States as it is based on a survey with students in one university. The primary reason for studying students only in one university in the current study was to control for any extraneous variables such as college culture or environment as well as factors associated with cities or states where universities are located. Future research with a large national representative sample may be able to consider a greater number of variables. It would also be helpful to compare international students in the United States with U.S. students on related issues.

Contributions. Digital communication technologies are increasingly important in college students’ lives. In particular, popular social media sites help international students stay connected with their family and friends in the home country and build new social relationships in the host country. It is important to better understand how international students’ social media use is associated with their perceived social support and social adjustment to better accommodate the group whose number has significantly increased over the years (Institute of International Education, 2014).

The results of the study advance research on the role of digital media in international students’ acculturation and adjustment (Kim, et al., 2009; Lin, et al., 2012; Ye, 2006). By taking into account demographic and social psychological characteristics of international students in the analysis, this study provides a more complete picture in understanding the relationships between social media use, social support, and social adjustment. This research also updates previous studies on patterns of social networks of international students (Bochner, et al., 1977; Furnham and Alibhai, 1985). Our findings show that the composition of international students’ social connections has become more complex with online social networking. This study is an important step toward developing a more up-to-date model of international students’ social networks by taking into account new types of social ties and interactions between those ties on social media.

In addition to these scholarly contributions, our findings on how international students use social media and which groups they perceive to be providing most emotional support should help relevant university offices or higher education administrators devise ways to better support international students. This study shows that international students rely heavily on family or friends in or from their home country for social support. Related organizations might develop programs that help facilitate international students making social connections with a broader group of people in and outside the university. While this study was conducted with international students in the United States, the findings also provide insight into international students in other countries. End of article

 

About the authors

Hyunjin Seo, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Docking Faculty Scholar in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.
E-mail: hseo [at] ku [dot] edu

Ren-Whei Harn, M.A., is a Ph.D. student in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.
E-mail: rharn [at] ku [dot] edu

Husain Ebrahim, M.A., is a Ph.D. student in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.
E-mail: husain [at] ku [dot] edu

José Aldana is a University Scholar and Honors student in the School of Business at the University of Kansas.
E-mail: aldana [at] ku [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Furnham and Alibhai, 1985, p. 771.

2. Ibid.

3. Furnham and Alibhai, 1985, p. 771.

 

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Editorial history

Received 13 August 2016; revised 25 September 2016; accepted 26 September 2016.


Copyright © 2016, Hyunjin Seo, Ren-Whei Harn, Husain Ebrahim, and José Aldana. All Rights Reserved.

International students’ social media use and social adjustment
by Hyunjin Seo, Ren-Whei Harn, Husain Ebrahim, and José Aldana.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 11 - 7 November 2016
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6880/5646
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i11.6880





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