Over the past few years, on university campuses all across the country, there’s been a lot of talk about “changing the culture” when it comes to student alcohol use. It’s well known that students are a high-risk drinking population, and binge drinking has become a norm rather than a rarity. Recent alcohol-related deaths of students at Acadia University and at Queen’s University have really propelled the idea of changing the culture forward. Residence policies have changed, to ensure drinking is not driven underground, and to limit the amount of alcohol a student can have in the building at one time (and therefore consume at one time). Campus bars have looked more closely at their staff training, drink specials, and security. Those who program events on campus are paying more attention to planning alcohol-free events.
What I haven’t seen yet, is anyone trying to change the culture by addressing digital student identity- what students share and post online.
What students share on social media shows only a tiny portion of who they really are. It’s often said that we only share the good things, and hide everything else. But it’s not necessarily the good things that we share- it’s the things that help to cultivate the image of ourselves that we want others to see. In a recent post, Josie Ahlquist talked about the fronts that different students put on through social media. Through a careful selection of what they posts, students cultivate six main images of themselves: the partier, socialite, comic, risk-taker, institutional citizen, and eccentric.
When it comes to changing the culture, one of these social media fronts stands out from all the others- the partier. These students make the current culture extremely obvious to all of their friends and followers. Statuses about their bar plans for the night, the hangover they currently have, the bender they’re on. Photos of beer pong, and of party after party, always with a glass or beer bottle in their hand. Tweets that make no sense because they’re clearly written while drunk. I think we all know at least a few people whose social media are plastered with this kind of content, but we know a lot more people who post this type of content occasionally.
What would happen if we could get students to change the front that they are presenting? What would happen if we could shift students away from presenting that partier front? Would it have an impact on the partying itself?
I don’t think these questions have a definitive answer (at least not yet!), but here’s something to think about. Research has shown that students will sometimes undertake certain activities or actions simply so that they can share them on social media (Birnbaum, 2013). For instance, Birnbaum cites an example of one student who jumped off a cliff into a river because he thought it would make a good photo to post on Facebook, and another example of a student who rappelled down the side of a seven-story residence building simply to have his photo taken with a sign. Birnbaum says that action for the sake of posting happens most often with the risk-taking front, but who’s to say it doesn’t also happen for the partiers? Would that student have still done the keg stand if he wasn’t going to have a photo of it to post afterwards? Do students sometimes go out simply because they know their lack of presence in photos of the evening might be questioned?
Here’s something else to think about: more than changing individual behaviour, I think this could be a really good step towards changing the culture. I mean, what is culture? Dictionary.com defines it as the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. It’s made up of what we see, do, believe, and share on a daily basis. Culture is very much a self-perpetuating phenomenon. We see other people doing something, or acting a certain way, and we feel like we are supposed to act the same way. If we see that everyone else is always drinking, we’re going to feel pressure to also drink as well. We’re going to think it’s simply what we’re supposed to do, what we have to do in order to fit in.
It’s undeniable that there’s a perception, and an expectation, that university is going to be full of partying and drinking. It’s undeniable that there’s a pressure to drink and party once you’re at university. With social media feeds full of the drinking culture, and with daily conversations and weekend plans full of the drinking culture, drinking simply becomes a part of life. What if we could convince students to remove drinking culture from their social media feeds? What if we could convince them not to post photos where they’re clearly drunk, not to brag about how much they drank, not to complain about how about how drunk they are? Students are influenced by what they see and read online- so what if we could remove the influence of the drinking culture from that medium? How would that impact and change social pressures?
Social media has changed the world. Now, can it positively change our culture?
I’d love to hear what you think! Share your thoughts in the comments, or connect via Twitter (@n_crozier).