Communication Currents

How Facebook Helps (or Doesn’t Help) Newcomers Adapt

December 1, 2015
Digital Communication & Gaming

Since its foundation in 2004, Facebook has become a symbol of social networking and facilitated worldwide communication. Other online services such as YouTube,Twitter, and Instagram have become integrated into our daily lives. These platforms connect us as never before and allow us to be in touch instantly and around the clock. They can also help newcomers to a culture, such as immigrants, adapt through increasing their connections with locals, and providing access to resources and information. Social networking sites also help reduce emotional stress, improve linguistic fluency, and increase social support. However, for some immigrants this is not always the case.

Sometimes immigrants restrict their connections and interactions only to the people from their own groups. This restriction is often a result of immigrants feeling pressured to adapt, feeling resentment toward the host culture, and experiencing depression because they fear they will lose their native identity. In other words, many immigrants fall into an online isolation that heightens lack of motivation to adapt to the cultural norms of the host societies and eventually separates them from the host culture. Immigration is increasingly diverse and politicized in the United States—just look to how immigration has become a key political issue in the 2016 elections. Media have a powerful impact on how immigrants are perceived and on how immigrants adapt to the United States.  

The bad news is our knowledge about social networking and immigrant adaptation is quite limited. Most of what we know comes from research on international university students who use social media while adapting to a new environment. For these international students, the use of social networking can both make adaptation easier and help them emphasize their ethnic identity. However, we have not really examined immigrants over the long term.

International students typically are young, they are more adaptable, their interactions usually take place in academia, and they have less of a need to fully adapt because many of them leave the country after graduation. Long-term immigrants, on the other hand, include different age groups and social backgrounds, and they often experience more challenging situations in their lives. At the end of the day, they need to build their lives in a new society and more fully adapt to a new culture.

Muslim immigrants from all over the world make up a rapidly growing immigrant population in the United States. Immigration of Muslims to non-Muslim nations such as the United States has increased rapidly over the past 10 years. With this increase in immigration has come an increase in Islamophobia (fear of Islam) and pressure for Muslims to adapt to their new cultural surroundings. Thus, many Muslim immigrants, who face rising Islamophobia, have growing resentment toward the United States. For many Muslim immigrants, who suffer isolation, unhappiness, and disenchantment, and separate themselves from the dominant culture, the Internet serves as a place to join as a community. Thus, a key question becomes, why can some immigrants adapt to their host cultures while others cannot?

The length of stay in the host culture is one factor that affects the ability of immigrants to culturally adapt. The longer immigrants stay in their new nation/culture, they may develop a more negative perception of the host culture. Typically, more contact between groups decreases prejudice and negative feelings between the groups, but this is not always the case; the opposite is in fact possible. In addition, when immigrants are more willing to keep their original identity and have less interest in daily interaction with the host society, they will choose to be more separated and isolated. For example, let’s think about the current political situation in the United States surrounding Mexican immigration (Republican and Democratic candidates are currently debating various immigration plans in preparation for the 2016 presidential election). Mexican immigrants are likely to feel uncomfortable about how American society approaches them because of how American politicians and media portray them. Thus, they may decide to reduce their contacts with non-Mexicans and develop negative feelings toward the United States.

When the members of an immigrant group use social networking sites mostly to interact among themselves, they are less integrated into the host society. This increased use of social networking sites can be a symptom that the immigrant group tries to keep its ethnic ties and separate itself from the dominant culture. Usually when the immigrants cannot make the proper link to the dominant group, they prefer to strengthen their internal links and relationships to preserve themselves, make opportunities, and get protection for their own people. Social networking sites afford them a convenient way to be around their own people.

National background also affects the process of adaptation. For example, the current study shows Senegalese Muslims are adapting to U.S. culture more than Pakistani Muslims. This is so for two distinct reasons. First, many Americans have a more negative attitude toward Pakistanis because many Americans perceive Pakistanis as more typical examples of “Middle Eastern” Muslims. A 2012 Pew Center survey found that only 10 percent of Americans felt they could trust Pakistan because of issues such as Muslim extremism and mistrust over Osama bin Laden’s hiding in Pakistan. However, Senegalese Muslims are simply less known in the United States and thus less negatively judged. Second, many Pakistanis feel unwelcome because of negative feedback they get from some Americans on the issue of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.  

If we want to help immigrants adapt faster and have a better life, we need to know more about how immigrants use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to interact and communicate with people from their own cultural groups and with the people from their host culture. Creating more connections between the immigrants and the host culture can be helpful in immigrant adaption, and the online sphere is no exception. Especially as we more often interact and connect online, we need to broaden engagement of immigrant society into our face-to-face online society. 

About the author (s)

Diyako Rahmani

University of Jyväskylä

Doctoral Candidate

Stephen M. Croucher

Marist College

Associate Professor