Only a decade or two ago, international travel and cultural exchange looked very different than it does today. While handwritten letters and the occasional phone call used to be the preferred method for international communication, nowadays technology like Skype and Facetime allows exchange students to have face-to-face conversations with family and friends back home virtually any time they want.
While this technology can certainly help ease homesickness and culture shock when used correctly, overuse of social media and video calls when studying abroad can actually have negative effects on a students’ cultural immersion and overall exchange experience. In fact, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests social media and the “always connected” impact it has on students could actually hinder a successful transition into a new country and culture.
For exchange students, host families, and biological families, this begs the question: how much contact is too much? Does social media and Skype help or hurt a student’s transition into a new culture, and how can you determine limitations on internet use during a semester or year abroad? While every student is different, these general “do’s” and “don’ts” of cultural exchange in the digital age might help curb the negative impact of social media use and enhance the exchange experience overall.
Make a schedule for chatting with friends and family back home… and stick to it.
With connecting to friends and family back home as easily as opening up an app on your phone, it’s hard to stay away. This is especially true in the transitional period between the initial “honeymoon” phase of cultural exchange, and the tougher period of initial culture shock.
That’s why it’s especially important to make a schedule for interacting with friends and family back home before this challenging time begins. Have a conversation with your family (or, if you’re a host family, with your student’s biological parents) about how often they should connect. It’s a good idea to schedule these chats on a particular day of the week that is usually free of other commitments.
Once the honeymoon period fades, make a point to stick to this schedule — even when it’s hard. Remember: culture shock is temporary, and if you stay consistent in engaging with your host country’s culture, you’re sure to be back to yourself in no time!
Start a blog or website away from social media.
Friends and family back home are naturally interested in the fun activities and adventures you go on during your cultural exchange program. It’s also completely natural to want to post pictures, videos and even short updates on your experiences on social media. That said, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram allow for an almost instant response from your friends and family back home — which makes it especially easy to get caught up in a commenting spiral.
Having a blog or website where you can post pictures, stories and updates on your experiences abroad is a great way to keep friends and family in the loop — without getting constant notifications to your phone. Plus, writing and journaling are proven methods for dealing with homesickness and culture shock since they allow you to process emotions in a healthier and more productive way.
Medium.com, SquareSpace.com, and Wix.com are just a few great sites that allow you to start a blog for free.
Stick to a limited international phone plan.
Many data and phone plans include unlimited international calling and texting — and many cultural exchange students make the mistake of using these plans thinking that this will help them contact home more easily. The truth is, however, that having international texting and calling overseas makes it too easy to constantly call friends and family in your home country.
One great way to keep your international calling in check is to opt for a phone plan that has only limited international calling and texting included. This can help keep your calls in check even when it’s hard since the financial barrier of making expensive calls overseas can be a powerful motivator to stay off the phone.
Of course, many apps and platforms like WhatsApp allow students to make calls using the internet or via their data plan. Make sure to keep this in mind when budgeting your international calls — any more than a few hours a week is too much!
Plan a regular “digital detox” day.
Plenty of millennials and other digitally-savvy young people swear by the benefits of a “digital detox” day every few weeks or months. By simply putting away the phone, tablet, and computer for 24 or 48 hours, you give yourself time to enjoy the people and environment around you.
Use this time to get outside for a hike, or spend some time with friends cooking, watching a movie or playing board games. Make a strict “no phone” rule for these days, too, and only default to using your phone in the case of an emergency.
Charge phones and tablets in a location away from the bedroom.
For many students, the hardest time to overcome homesickness during their cultural exchange program is late at night while trying to sleep. We are naturally inclined to let our minds wander during quiet periods right before we drift off — and for students in the thick of culture shock, this is an especially easy time to pick up their phone and scan through social media updates of friends back home.
A great way to avoid this is to charge phones in a location away from the bedroom. Many host families have a dedicated “charging station” somewhere in their home, often in their kitchen or living room. Set a “digital curfew” when you set your phone to charge and leave it behind when you go to bed. If your phone simply isn’t there, it’s easier to resist the temptation to get caught up in news from your home country.
Opportunities to speak face-to-face with friends and family back home certainly isn’t always a bad thing, but like most things, it’s all about moderation. Stick to these tips and tricks during your semester or year abroad, and you’re guaranteed to have a happier, easier and quicker immersion into your host country’s culture!
We invite you to read more about hosting a foreign exchange student. If you have specific questions about hosting, check out our host family FAQ page. You can also read testimonials from our past and current host families. When you feel ready, complete our host family interest form and our area representative will get in touch with you.
You can also get involved by joining our team of Area Representatives! Help match host families and exchange students and bring the world closer together, while making a supplemental income.