A College Student’s Social Media Dilemma

Scene from ‘Men, Women & Children’ (2014) via http://www.binarytattoo.com/

Scene from ‘Men, Women & Children’ (2014) via http://www.binarytattoo.com/

7:27am:📍Bed. 
It’s somehow already time to get up. Ugh I hope I’m dreaming. I strain to reach my phone and hit snooze as a matter of habit. The routine Debate begins as the comforts of my bed pose strong arguments. Another 10 minutes and I’ll be good to go. But last night I promised myself I’d be up on time today.

I compromise, lying in bed while adjusting to the awake state. Scroll through Facebook for news updates. Watch a few Snap stories from the night before. Clear all the little red notifications. My pesky alarm goes off for the 6th time. Okaaaaaay. I’m up.

Welcome to a Day in the Life of a College Student

This is a day in the life of A college student, not a day in the life of ALL college students. This piece isn’t designed to represent our entire generation; we’re too diverse for that to even be possible.

What we have done is compile narratives from around the country to highlight trends and behaviors that impact the way we confront the dilemma of social media. We hope these “hows and whys” shed some light, whether you want to build better products for college students, understand why we unlock our phones 80 times a day, or relate better to your 19-year-old niece.

Social Image Crafting

8:03am:📍Somewhere between the kitchen and the bus stop. 
Yeahhh so not enough time for breakfast. I speedwalk to the bus stop, Clif Bar in one hand and phone in the other. I get there just as a bus is leaving. That blows. 

I glance at my phone to check the time and see a couple straggler “likes” from my last Insta on the lock screen. I’ve instinctively opened the app and am scrolling through posts as the next bus pulls up. Shoot, what time is it again?

. . .

To survive and be noticed in a seemingly infinite sea of “friends,” “followers,” and content, one must move with the tide while also drawing attention.

We place a greater emphasis on a molded social identity as a natural consequence of our progressively competitive realm of social media. To compete with a mass onslaught of posts across platforms, we turn to higher resolution phones, use apps like VSCO and Snapseed, and only publish our best content.

Instagram, for example, can convert just another photo in a Facebook album into a work of art. From the GQ-esque multi-take photoshoot, to the make-it-or-break-it captioning or the looping a friend to work their filtering magic, to the close inspection and analysis of likes and comments, Instagram and its culture can make any ordinary moment vie for a submission to the Louvre.

Apps like Instagram, Facebook, and increasingly Snapchat, mark us as a “filtered generation.” The desire for social validation has taken this “filteredness” to new heights. We have “cleaned up” our social media game, ensuring that each post, edit, and delete tells a carefully crafted narrative which reflects the prevailing identity we want to convey (often “cropping out the sadness” in our lives).

The quest to create our ideal social image is a continuous battle. Image crafting tools provide us with control over our projected image, but they also make it more difficult to keep afloat and standout in the endless sea of “friends,” “followers,” and content.

Breadth Over Depth

2:32pm:📍The last seat in Lorch Hall.
Despite the iced caramel lattes, the half-day cram sesh is taking its toll. I scan through the Sperries, North Face jackets, and screen-scrollers for an empty seat. I take a seat amid the soundbites of conversations referencing news headlines I haven’t had the chance to read. Woah, if you rearrange the letters of “Principles of Microeconomics,” it spells “Nap time”…

. . .

With the desire to be “in the know” and access to information in just a few taps and swipes, the modern college student is aware of an increasing breadth of topics. With minimal time, we turn to apps that sift through the noise.

Take Snapchat for example. Its momentary pictures and videos and seamless transitioning between stories, allow us to vicariously sample experiences we’re in the mood for. It keeps us in the loop, provides us with conversation starters, and gives us an outlet to engage with anything mildly interesting, all the while maintaining a steady balance between information and entertainment.

Many of our apps and their feeds have adapted to offer us a Tapas of Social Media in this giant Food Court of Information, giving a small taste of many things. Our apps and our culture have evolved towards less of more, stretching our attentions across a wider base and inevitably leading us to value breadth over depth.

Some may call us “a generation of cyberslackers.” And we agree, we could have been more efficient in writing this piece had we not checked our phones every few minutes. But this easily distracted college student mind is the same one that has adapted to fluidly switching topics and mindsets, to being aware of hundreds of things at once, and to being open to new ways of thinking.

Instant Gratification and the Ease of Opting Out

6:18pm:📍 En route to McElroy Dining Hall. 
Lol, not today 4 flights of stairs, yesterday was the monthly trip to the gym. There’s already two other people in the elevator when it opens. It’s uncomfortably quiet. I must’ve missed a text. They’ve got their phones out as well, likely also doing “very important things.” I my Facebook app. The in-elevator wifi connection isn’t strong enough to refresh, so I switch over to Safari…

. . .

We’ve been conditioned not to delay our gratification. We constantly consume and focus on what we want, and how we can get it now.

To apply Newton’s laws to our daily interactions with social media, we expect most actions to lead to an immediate reaction. A Facebook post should get likes within seconds of being posted. Our friends will respond to our text messages within minutes. Pulling down on the refresh icon will immediately bring fresh content to consume. We look for a lifeline when moments aren’t adequately engaging or entertaining.

Our phones provide us with one form of lifeline. They take us through wormholes of intriguing distractions in just a few swipes and taps (often leading us to wonder how we got to that random cat video). 

Whether it’s the 2 minutes before your mocha frappe is ready, uncomfortable lulls in conversations at dinner, or procrastinating anything from homework to sleep, our phones allow us to opt into our own “instant gratification” bubble of technology. We suffer from no-mobile-phone-phobia, or Nomophobia, which is why we freak out when our battery dips below 10%.

We typically return to the same 5 to 7 apps that provide us with the highest form of utility. Occasionally our routines change up, but they inevitably fall back on rituals when all else fails: send an #IAmBored Snapchat, take a random Buzzfeed quiz someone Facebook messaged you, or the scroll through-refresh-scroll through again routine on Facebook.

In a world where uncomfortable experiences can be silenced with a simple tap of the back button, we attempt to balance the tremendous utility of our devices and technology with the ease with which we can opt out of valuable human experiences through them.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

10:12pm:📍 “Studying” in Apartment #241.
Swipe. FML. Tap. Tap. Is this some sort of joke? Swipe. Swipe. Tap. How is every single one of you at this party? Replay. Double tap for selfie camera. Snap photo of huge grin. Caption: ‘😂 same here’. Send. Reverse Camera and snap follow-up photo of your Orgo textbook. Caption: ‘jk my life sucks 😭💩’.

. . .

When we’re having an incredible time, we make sure the whole social media world knows it. And when we’re having a terrible time, that same world manages to make us feel even worse.

As a generation so infused in connectivity, the sense of disconnection can be more evident than ever. We post constantly about our own lives and the comments and retweets and favorites and reactions fuel us like caffeine. 

When the momentum of our own activity drops off, it can be difficult to avoid the withdrawals. The access to, and, at times illusions of a life outside that is grander than our own can cause the dreaded Fear Of Missing Out (we hate, hate, hate being left out).

Instagram feeds. Vine reels. Pinterest pins. Snapchat stories. These platforms are hubs for curated highlights of our social identities. Though people have always been taking trips to Cancun for spring break, getting accepted to Ivy league schools, and starting new relationships, the awareness we have now is unprecedented. 

However, we also have the power to skip past the “couple that is back together for the 4th time” updates of the world with a simple scroll. This makes the interesting material we linger on stand out, while retakes and filters only amplify the effect. As a result, the content we StumbleUpon is increasingly likely to trigger FOMO.

FOMO can cause social anxiety and the feeling that our lives are less interesting than average, but it can also push us to seek out our next adventure as a way to overcome the fear itself.

Rinse and Repeat

12:57am:📍 Bed.
I lie in bed finishing up a GOT episode, checking any notifications and unseen posts one last time. I set my alarm, scratch that my 6 alarms, and plug my phone to charge within reaching distance. Tomorrow, I’m definitely going to wake up early…

. . .

These trends of FOMO, Social Image Crafting, Breadth over Depth, and Instant Gratification create an addictive feedback loop. This is our dilemma: to navigate the social media world without being consumed by it.


What other moments do you feel symbolize the way that college students interact with social media?

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it please hit like/share.


This post was co-written by Ameet Kallarackal and Stephen Soward.

Ameet is a junior at Boston College studying Operations Management and Computer Science. He is also the Head of UX Research @CampusInsights. Campus Insights offers UI / UX testing and marketing research conducted by college students on college campuses.

Stephen is a 2015 graduate of the University of Michigan. By day he is a member of the Business Leadership Program @LinkedIn and by night he is the COO @CampusInsights. LinkedIn’s BLP program is a rotational learning and development program that equips early in career professionals with the skills needed to build a successful career at LinkedIn and beyond.