How Are Communication Technologies Re-Shaping Individual Relationships
Among College Undergraduates?
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Research Methods 361, Spring 2009
The digital age that we are now growing into has the ability to change how people
communicate with others. Today’s college undergraduate students are at the forefront of the
technological advances that are before them. College undergraduates of the millennial generation
are exploring the factors that shape their peer personality and identifying characteristics of that
personality through the online environment (Workman, 2008, p. 6). Social networking sites were
once used by a small elite, but now widely used by many and have become the subject of popular
culture, public interest, and political debate (Kollock & Smith, 1999/2005).
The Internet is being used to connect people to people in many different ways. The
characteristics of interaction, communication, and coordination are different in online than when
people meet face-to-face (Kollock & Smith, 1999/2005). Using network communication such as
online chat, social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook, email, even text messaging
creates a shift in interactions among people to be practical and more convenient (Kollock &
Smith, 1999/2005). It is the advancement in computer technology and the shift in communication
that brings attention to the changing individual relationships that college undergraduate’s
experience. Much previous research has studied the interactivity, interaction, and collaboration
among college undergraduates (Selwyn, 2007). This research has shown that with the growing
power of the Internet, college students are turned on by the convenience of the Internet’s speed,
display of availability information, and support for multiple conversations (Quan-Haase, 2008, p.
105). It is not surprising that there is an increase in the use of communication technologies
among college students, but it is surprising that there have been few studies that have examined
the link between the increase of communication technologies and the relationships among
college undergraduates. We know that there is a changing culture with the younger generation
because of the increase in Internet usage and communication technologies (Coyle & Vaughn,
2008, p. 15), but how does that directly affect individual relationships among college
First, I would like to define the area of communication technologies that will be mostly
focused on in this review: social networks. A social network is a configuration of people
connected to one another through interpersonal means, such as friendship, common interests, or
ideas (Coyle & Vaughn, 2008, p. 13). Social networks exist because humans are societal and
require relationships with other humans in order to survive (Coyle & Vaughn, 2008, p. 13).
Social networks are also critical to the psychological well-being of humans; this has been well
documented throughout the years and is still interesting to researchers today (Rheingold,
1993/2000, p. 321). Survey Research shows that an overwhelming majority of respondents report
forming personal relationships online (Coyle & Vaughn, 2008, p. 13).
“Internet time” – the furious pace of change in digital culture—compresses the timelines
of events (Rheingold, 1993/2000, p. 335). Research shows that college student’s primary reasons
for using communication technologies is convenience, ease of use, privacy if there were other
people in the room, and the ability to multitask by engaging in multiple things, such as watching
television (Quan-Haase, 2008, p. 108). In another study done in Hong Kong, the primary
motivations of university students for using communication technologies were to express
affection, being sociable by thanking people, helping friends, and expressing encouragement
(Quan-Haase, 2008, p. 109).
While using communication technologies and the Internet, college students report that
they communicate primarily with friends from home and on campus (Quan-Haase, 2008, p 106).
One of the more popular methods of communication among college students is a website titled
Facebook, where college students use the website to stay linked with people with whom they
used to be more closely involved with, e.g., former classmates and newer classmates (Coyle &
Vaughn, 2008, p. 16). Research shows that college students who use communication
technologies communicated considerably far more with peers than with relatives, suggesting a
generation gap in the adoption of the digital age (Quan-Haase, 2008, p. 107).
With college students leaving their homes and sometimes traveling far distances to
schools, geographical distance reduces both communication frequency and psychological
closeness with high school friends and family (Quan-Haase, 2008, p. 108). With an increase in
distance, opportunities for meaningful interaction through conversation, persuasion, and sharing
of experiences decrease as well does closeness to old friends and family members (Quan-Haase,
2008, p. 108).
Studies report social ties that are maintained through e-mail, instant messaging, or social
networking sites, such as Facebook and Myspace, show greater closeness than ties maintained
via the telephone and in person (Quan-Haase, 2008, p. 109). College students are aware of the
importance of in-person meetings for the maintenance of social ties, but communication
technologies gives college students a sense of connectedness and allows students to share
experiences with one another as if they were meeting face-to-face (Selwyn, 2007, p. 87).
As Kollock and Smith (1999/2005) have pointed out, “Community is now conceptualized
not in terms of physical proximity but in terms of social networks. Telephones, automobiles, and
airplanes have long meant that it was possible to establish and sustain important social
relationships outside of one’s immediate physical neighborhood” (para. 3). Now, in online
interaction, the experience is something like attending a cocktail party and only being able to see
people who are actively speaking, while the room and all the listeners are invisible (Kollock &
Critics with dystopian views state that with a loss of strong bonds among members in
society, the Internet will limit connections between central and peripheral actors in society and
those on the peripheral structure will be less connected than ever before (Fisher, 2001, p. 24).
Fisher (2001) also notes that critics with utopian views state, “Cyberspace will make it easier for
people to communicate both politically and otherwise” (p. 24).
Workman (2008) states that most “student affairs professionals and sociologists have
worried that the trend would lead to a population of students who were isolated and unable to
develop healthy “offline” relationships” (p. 7). Research further suggests that online interactions
do not necessarily remove people from their offline world but may indeed be used to support
relationships and keep people in contact, even when life changes move people away from each
other (Workman, 2008, p. 7). Rheingold (1993/2000) argues that, “virtual communities may
actually be part of the remedy for the loss of live community” (p. 275).
As this review shows, research focusing on communication technology use among
college undergraduates is necessary because applying knowledge to the subject will show the
changing characteristics of individual relationships. The Internet is now taking over as a
communication tool that is more convenient than meeting in a face-to face environment for
college students. Students can use communication technologies to still achieve a sense of
connectedness with former high school friends and family back home. Research in this area also
suggests that virtual interaction may be a remedy for the loss of live community. One era is
coming to a close and the rising of a new era is coming. Further study will show as technologies
continue to advance, the students’ relationships will change alongside it.
This study will focus on the growing use of communication technologies and look at the
question of “How are communication technologies re-shaping individual relationships among
college undergraduates?” To answer this question, it will require broad, open-ended feedback
from samples collected because individual viewpoints about their own relationships are likely to
be too complex for researchers. These responses have to come from college undergraduates, and
it is not necessary to single any particular group out, so the undergraduates can be either male or
female and the ethnicity of the undergraduate can be from all backgrounds. For these reasons, it
is appropriate to use a qualitative research approach.
For this study, the availability/convenience and intensive interviewing sampling methods
will be the most appropriate because it will be used to focus on the Internet use and relationships
of the specific sample such as college undergraduates either male or female and ethnicity from
all backgrounds. There will be no need to generalize the results to the whole population since the
study is focused on just college undergraduates. Moreover, non-probability sampling methods
are considered easier and less costly to use (Schutt, 2004). To get an adequate number of
participants, the researchers will be able to wait for undergraduates around campus in places
such as school unions, outside of buildings and outside of college dormitories. The
availability/convenience method is used to select participants because they are available and easy
to find (Schutt, 2004). In a few ways it can be difficult to get a solid sampling frame, such as
mailing list or email lists, focused on college undergraduates because of universities privacy
laws. However, by walking around a college campus, researchers will encounter enough
participants to gather a sufficient amount. Thus, this technique will be the best way to collect
proper participants who are generous enough to contribute to the research.
There are some weaknesses of using this type of method for gathering samples however.
An example being, with this type of method, it is only focusing on college undergraduates and
not all college students such as students going back to college for their masters or doctorate
degree. Respondents with higher education are likely to have different viewpoints from those of
undergraduates, so this sampling method may not ensure the quality of samples and diversity of
samples from all people who attend college.
To study the habits and actions of college undergraduates, it is best to use qualitative
research methods because they primarily focus on human subjectivity. By human subjectivity, I
mean the meanings that people attach to their individual actions or events (Schutt 2004). It is
also because responses from the research participants may not be anticipatable or quite complex
regarding their individual relationships or their communication habits. With all the possible
choices among qualitative research methods, the availability/convenience method will be most
suitable. Availability/convenience method, intertwined with intensive interviewing, is designed
to lead the respondents to talk in-depth, and provide information in their own words. Intensive
interviewing is also helpful to make clear that respondents understand the questions being asked
or when researchers do not understand the response from a participant.
This method will allow researchers to gain accurate open-ended feedback about the
participant’s use of communication technologies and social networking sites and how it might
affect their individual relationships. The researchers will not only ask participants their prepared
questions, but they will also reach for further meaning beyond the answers to their prepared
questions. For example, a prepared question like “How do you use social networking sites to
communicate between family and friends?” After a participant answers the question, they may be
presented with further details, and then the researcher may ask follow-up questions. In the
appendix you will see some example questions that will cover the main topics of the study. The
list of questions is a guide, rather than a strict protocol, that will be closely followed regardless
of the interviewee’s answers.
Intensive interviewing will take place in the student unions of college campuses or
outside of buildings as undergraduates walk by. While undergraduates wait between classes in
the union or outside on a bench, researchers will approach them and describe to them the purpose
of the study. This will allow the interviewing to be conducted on the spot.
One of the strengths of the intensive interviewing method is that the researchers can
easily recognize and find the proper samples and conduct interviews immediately. Thus, this will
be very efficient for the researcher’s time and cost. This method will also allow the researchers
to ask broad questions like “How have your individual relationships changed, if at all, since
you’ve gone to college?” The researcher then may ask follow-up questions to gain more
information. Also possible, the researcher is able to make sure that the participant understands
the questions, and this will help ensure the quality of the information.
There are a few weaknesses in this method. An example being, college undergraduates
may not feel comfortable being put on the spot and being interviewed. With a lack of
communication between the researcher and the participant, it may bring about the use of note
taking or a simple recording devise. Possible samples could complicate the research by not
honestly answering questions or being confused, and the researchers need to determine if
samples can contribute to the study. Another possible weakness could be if an intensive
interview is conducted on only college undergraduates, then respondents may not be as diverse
as they should be such as other people who attend college for graduate or doctoral purposes, and
potentially could have very similar types of responses.
The use of intensive interviewing may be used to battle communication barriers since
interviewing allows samples to talk openly. With a possible lack of diversity in samples, it can be
overcome by interviewing in other college campuses around the Milwaukee area. The
researchers will also ask each participant the college they attend in order to make sure there is
diversity among the samples.
Inductive research techniques can be used to develop an explanation to account for how
the advancement of communication technologies affects college undergraduate’s relationships.
Since the area of research on communication technologies is relatively new, research will have to
start with specific data before coming up with a theory. With research ongoing, researchers will
create a grounded theory, or building up inductively a systematic theory that is based on the
observations (Schutt 2004). As interviewing and reflection continue, researchers will cultivate
their definitions of problems and concepts and select indicators. As communication technologies
continue to advance and people having different terms when referring to a specific type of
technology, research will be progressively refined as experience is gained in the setting. An
example of a code would be when a research participant refers to a message sent on Facebook as
a “wall post,” “commented,” or “face-booked.” All mean the same thing but could post a
problem for researchers looking at data early in the research process. Once problems and
concepts are identified, researchers can check the frequency and distribution of the phenomena
and generate a theory.
The study proposed, to seek how technological advances in communication particularly
social networking sites, affect college undergrads individual relationships is still a relatively new
area of research, considering new social networking sites and communication technologies
continue to advance and pop up on the Internet. The studies that have been done previously only
focused on the early social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace, and researchers
were primarily concerned with how much time was spent on the sites and their reason for using
social networking sites (Coyle & Vaughn, 2008).
Even though communication technologies and social networking sites continue to grow
and change, the findings of this research will be significant because they will help understand
how college undergraduates communicate between family and friends in a new era of
technology. With more and more young adults going off to college they are seeking new ways to
keep connected with friends and family. The research will show whether or not communication
done online directly affects individual relationships. Also, this type of knowledge about
communication methods among college undergraduates will be helpful to the social networking
sites and other communication companies on what types of communication methods are growing
among popularity and what types of communication methods are fading as technology advances.
Coyle, C.L., & Vaughn, H. (2008). Social networking: communication revolution or
evolution? Bell Labs Technical Journal, 13(2), 13-18.
Fisher, D.R., & Wright, L.M. (2001). On utopias and dystopias: toward an understanding
of the discourse surrounding the internet. Journal of Computer-Mediated
Communication, 6(2), 23-26.
Kollock, P., & Smith, M. (2005). Communities in cyberspace. New York: Routledge.
(Original work published 1999).
Quan-Haase, A. (2008). Instant messaging on campus: use and integration in university
students’ everyday communication. The Information Society, 24(2), 105-115.
Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community. Massachusetts: The MIT Press. (Original
work published 1993).
Schutt, Russell K. 2004. Investigating the Social World. London: Sage Publications, Inc.
Selwyn, N. (2007). The use of computer technology in university teaching and learning: a
critical perspective. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23, 83-94.
Workman, T. (2008). The real impact of virtual worlds. Chronicle of Higher Education,
Intensive Interviewing Sample Questions
1. How many hours a day do you spend online?
2. What is your preferred source of communication (Cell phone, email, internet, face to
face, telegram, etc)?
3. What types of social networking sites do you use or communication technologies?
4. How many hours a day do you typically spend on a social networking site?
5. When you use communication technologies what do you primarily use them for
(Uploading photos, blogging, communication between friends/family, etc)?
6. If you communicate between people, whom do you mostly communicate with?
7. Have you ever meet someone online that goes to the same college and eventually met up
8. How would you describe a relationship with someone you met online as opposed to
meeting someone face to face (Is it stronger, weaker, the same, never met anyone online,
9. How is it easier to talk to people online than in face to face?
10. How do you see communication technologies advancing over the next few years?
11. By using communication technologies, has it affected your relationships positively or
negatively, and how?
12. Which feature do you use the most on social networking sites (chat, email messaging,
wall-posting, video chat, etc)?
13. In response to question #12, why do you use that feature over other features?