Research (Vol. 54) — The Digital Generation Gap

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How Student Journalists Transition from Personal to Professional Uses of Mobile Devices and Social Media

By Jean Reid Norman
Weber State University

Introduction: Current college freshmen have never known a world without cell phones and the Internet.  For them, mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablet computers, and social media, such as Twitter™ and Facebook™, are highly personal and an extension of themselves (Dover, 2012; Heverly, 2007; Turkle, 2005, 2011).  At the same time, mobile devices have changed the way both professional and student journalists do their jobs, untethering them not only from their offices but also from their laptops and even from the need for a plug and an Internet connection (“Articles,” 2014; Walck, Cruikshank, & Kalyanko, 2015).  Along with new technology that makes an office optional, journalists are now expected to engage readers through social media. (Spyridou, Matsiola, Veglis, Kalliris, & Dimoulas, 2013; Mico, Masip, & Domingo, 2013).

New staffers have not yet adopted the culture of the journalism profession (Mensing, 2010), and their experience with digital media (Turkle, 2011) and expectations for how to get and interact with news (Enda & Mitchell, 2013) differ both from professional journalists and from the college media advisers who are teaching them to become professionals. These students reside on the consumer side of the news-making process and represent the trend of how consumers seek news: socially and through multiple platforms (Enda & Mitchell, 2013; Miller, Rainie, Purcell, Mitchell, & Rosenstiel, 2012; Pew Research Center, 2016).

The position of college news media staffers as deeply interested, young consumers who have not yet internalized professional biases presents an opportunity to research the integration of digital media into journalistic practice and the new paradigm in news-making that digital media have created.  This study explores these in the context of a practicum-style lab in which eight undergraduate students created content for a student news website at a Western university.

The purpose of this study is to analyze the experience of college journalists who are learning to transform digital media from a personal mode of expression to a professional one. It can help college media advisers understand what type of training in social media and mobile devices may be needed as they bring newcomers into their organizations. It may also make advisers sensitive to a digital divide among students coming to their institutions.

Literature Review

Humans and Digital Media

Marshall McLuhan (2003) may not have been the first to consider how technology alters the human experience, but his analysis, “the medium is the message,” is the most memorable. McLuhan’s point is that the medium shapes how the content is presented, and as the content changes, audience expectations change, and the norms of good content shift.

Sherry Turkle, an MIT clinical psychologist, takes that reasoning further, studying the impact of computer technology on people. Turkle finds a give-and-take between the digital technology and people, especially children, who take the new technology as a “fact of life” (Turkle, 2005, p. 66). These observations were originally made in 1984, and even in this early research, Turkle (2005) found children were using technology in their developmental phases, and teens in particular used technology in their identity formation.

What has changed for the millennial generation is the constant presence of others on social media during this exploration (Turkle, 2011). This becomes important for students preparing for a professional career, because artifacts created in childhood can follow individuals into their professional lives (Heverly, 2007). Those artifacts become problematic, as employers have begun examining Facebook™ pages and other social media sites before hiring applicants (Valdes, 2012), and college journalists increasingly are expected to have a presence on social media to promote their work (Schultz & Sheffer, 2012). This forces students to figure out how to take the digital technology they grew up with and transform it to professional uses (Bethell, 2010, Walck, Cruikshank, & Kalyango, 2015).

Central to any discussion on technology and change is Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory, particularly the Innovation-Decision Process: It begins with knowledge of an innovation, followed by persuasion that it would be useful, a decision whether to adopt it, implementation and confirmation that the decision was correct, at which point the decision may be modified (Rogers, 2005).  Within the implementation stage, Rogers (2005) discusses reinvention, in which the adopter customizes the innovation for personal use. After all, consumers know what functions they want and are trying to make the technology work for them (Sandvig, 2007). Rogers (2005) notes that high degrees of reinvention lead to faster rates of adoption and higher rates of sustainability.

Domestication theory in media research underscores the role of reinvention in diffusion of innovations theory. It holds that adaption for personal use, or “domestication,” contributes to rates of adoption and sustainability of technology (Peil & Röser, 2012). For example, the telephone was invented as a business device and was a predominantly male tool, but it proliferated in the United States only after wide acceptance of its use by women for chatting with friends (Peil & Röser, 2012). Important to this study, domestication theory also notes that the meanings and roles of technology are subject to constant change and negotiation (Peil & Röser, 2012). This change in the roles of mobile devices and social media is evident among college journalists as they adapt personal technology to professional use.

While domestication theory provides a theoretical framework for the adoption of mobile devices and social media, the continued use of this technology can be explained by uses and gratification theory, which takes a rational choice approach to media. If media meets the expectations of gratifications sought, then audiences will use it (Sparks, 2006, McQuail, 2008). Students beginning college are still consumers of digital media and theirs is an audience perspective. Recent research that applies uses and gratification theory to social media (Pai & Arnott, 2013) and mobile devices (Wei & Lu, 2014), finds that social media and mobile devices draw audiences because they meet needs for such items as social integration, help in achieving goals, status enhancement, and entertainment. The successful filling of those needs contributes to students’ use of these media and willingness to take them into a professional realm, resulting in reinvention (Rogers, 2005).

Innovation in Journalism

Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory has been cited in journalism research exploring how news organizations have responded to technology. The clearest trend in the industry is the proliferation of digital platforms: In 2016, 99 out of 110 news sites reported receiving more traffic from mobile devices than desktop computers, (Pew Research Center, 2016). A majority of U.S. adults, 62%, get news on social media sites (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016).

As new and old media converge, news organizations have had a mixed record in adapting to these innovations (Mitchelstein & Boczkowski, 2009; Steensen, 2011). Convergence is complicated by the lack of training and time required to learn the new roles journalists are assuming, as well as the lack of leadership in the implementation (Mico, Masip, & Domingo, 2013). If experienced journalists are not being given training and time to learn how to adapt to social media and mobile devices, journalists straight out college cannot expect instruction on how to modify their personal uses to professional ones. They need to learn this while working for college media.

Students and Mobile Technology

Today’s college students have grown up with cell phones, the Internet, and Facebook™ (Turkle, 2011). They enter higher education as “digital natives,” because the digital world is their habitat, compared with previous generations of “digital immigrants” (Bethell, 2010, p. 105). However, it is unclear how comprehensive the digital skills of young journalists are. Of American adults 18 to 29 years old, 8% do not own a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2017). While that is a small number, it is not 100%, and qualitative research on the subject (Livingstone, 2007; Seiter, 2007; Walck, Cruikshank, & Kalyango, 2015) indicates advisers cannot assume every student on their staff is proficient in smartphone use. Those who are proficient, Turkle (2005) notes, have developed a proficiency in a personal and not professional way. Helping students to develop professional standards is the job of advisers.


One question not addressed in the literature is how “digital immigrants” in student media can instruct “digital natives” in the most effective professional use of mobile technology. Parker Palmer (2007) envisions a subject-centered classroom that encourages students and teachers to learn about a topic from each other. Students may be digital natives and know how to push all the buttons, but they may lack the knowledge of what is appropriate content for a professional journalist.  The adviser has the experience and maturity to guide the creation of credible news content, but may not know all of the capabilities of the technology. This shared-learning pedagogy is used in this study. It leads to the research question:

RQ1: How do students transition from using their mobile devices for personal expression to using these tools in a professional manner as college journalists?


The data collection used collaborative autoethnography (Ngunjiri, Hernandez, & Chang, 2010), which relies not only on the field notes of all members of the group as they work through various themes, but also involves questions and discussion among the group members as the themes are explored. The study involved practicum lab courses producing news content for a student-focused website at a Western university. The class requirement was to produce fifteen stories or equivalent work during the semester. Eight students participated, three men and five women, all sophomore status or higher and all but one 25 or younger. Students were encouraged but not required to use digital media with which they were already proficient, such as Facebook™, Twitter™, and their mobile devices, in their journalistic work. Participation or lack of participation in the study did not affect a student’s grade.

Students were asked to keep journals about their use of social media and mobile technology. The instructor/researcher, who had spent 30 years as a professional, kept a journal to provide a “digital immigrant” perspective for comparison. Students contributed thirty-one journal entries over two semesters, and the instructor/research wrote ten.

Questions included: How did you use mobile devices and social media before the semester began?  How are you using them now? Is the use changing? Any surprises? Journal entries were coded for recurring themes with no predefined protocol (Peräkylä & Ruusuvuori, 2011), and the coding was checked by a faculty colleague for reliability and discussed during “collaboration sessions” with participants for validity.

An additional methodology, a focus group held in an undergraduate research methods class, was used to validate the findings and further explore the research question. Twelve students served as focus group members while eight served as observers. The notes from observers, the research methods instructor, and the researcher/ moderator were analyzed for the same themes and to see if additional themes emerged.


Three key themes addressing the research question came out of the journals.

  • Domestication of Digital Innovation. Students wrote about personal, or domesticated, use of the mobile devices and social media, and a parallel surfaced between their adoption of innovation on a personal level and their willingness to use these tools professionally.
  • Negotiation of Professional-Personal Use of Technology. There was clear evidence of students negotiating their identities as future journalism professionals as they transitioned from personal use of social media and mobile devices as students. They wrote about both tension between the personal and professional and about the transition to professional.
  • Digital Divide. A digital divide was revealed within the generation due to costs of both time and money. When considering the research question of how students transition in using their mobile devices for professional use, sometimes the answer is they don’t.

Each of these themes will be explored in further depth in this section.

Domestication of Digital Innovation

Domestication theory analyzes the diffusion of media innovations such as the radio, television, and telephone (Peil & Röser, 2012), with the argument that it was not until these technical innovations were accepted into homes with uses that suited the family, particularly wives, that they became culturally common. Looking at that process at a micro level, it might be expected that when individuals adopt technological innovations into their personal lives, they would be more likely to carry them into professional lives.

Student journals.  Initial journal entries from the students asked how they used their mobile devices and social media before the study began. They revealed two primary online identities. Three students viewed themselves as heavy consumers of news and sports. Three students wrote that their identity on social media was primarily social, using Facebook™, Instagram™, and Twitter™ to keep up with friends and acquaintances on a personal level.  One student defined her online identity as minimal, using a landline for calls when possible and expressing disdain for social media.

The use patterns each student brought into the study on a personal level carried through on the professional level in their work. The students who bragged of being news-consuming machines quickly made the transition from consumers to producers of original content. While before they had been “produsers,” providing content in the form of comments and repostings (Ridell, 2012), these students became content providers, relying on primary sources they interviewed, events they witnessed, and original writing to create journalism they shared via their social media networks. This level of sharing extended to making their sources aware of the links in the hope that the sources would then further share their work and drive traffic to their site.

In an example of reinvention, these students also engaged in live tweeting. This was particularly successful when they were covering live sporting events, and the tweets read like play-by-play broadcasting. These students recall previous generations of journalists who read the newspaper or watched television news as youngsters and then grew up to do what they had admired in the mass media. The process has not changed, only the medium. Their desire to produce news content on social media grew out of the use of those media as personal, domesticated tools of entertainment.

The students who were active in social media for communication also made a quick transition to more professional uses, but they were not as immersed in the production of online content. Part of this might have been because sports, the topic two of the previously mentioned students covered, is more suited to live tweeting. The students more active in communication wrote about using social media to contact potential sources for stories, and one noted that she had posted a link to a story she wrote, something she had not done before. Her perspective is personal, reflecting her pre-study use of social media: “I gained a lot more support from my Facebook™ friends than I thought I would.”

The student who expressed disdain for social media personally continued her estrangement from the digital world.  During the study period, she stopped using the social media she had established to promote her student radio show, because she was not seeing results. Just a few weeks into the semester, she deleted the Twitter™ app from her smart phone, and by the midterm, she had stopped paying her cell phone bill and relied solely on her mini-tablet computer for Internet connection. Her reasoning was cost, but part of it was also lack of gratification in that use. The phone bill was not a priority when money became tight, because it was not providing uses that were important to her. She still had access to social media through her mini-tablet, but she was reducing her use of that as well. If the device or application is not domesticated, it appears that professional uses are not gratification enough to entice a user to re-engage, at least in this case. Another student noted that as the semester progressed, she engaged in social media less because of the time demands of her schoolwork and journalistic activities. Time has been recognized as a limited resource in uses and gratification research, and time choices reflect gratifications of various uses (Sparks, 2006).

Focus group.  In the focus group, participants were closer to graduation, and they exhibited a greater sophistication in the use of social media and mobile devices.  They reported relying heavily on a mobile device and specified that tablet computers such as the Kindle and iPad were used more commonly for entertainment, and that smart phone devices were employed heavily for all other uses, with news consumption, Internet searches, and social media being shared across the platforms.

The focus group also reported choosing which social media channels they would use as a public face and which they would try to keep domesticated through the use of strict privacy settings. All respondents had domesticated both mobile devices and social media, and most had also made the transition to professional uses. Several students talked about reinventing themselves on social media to reflect a more professional persona. They all expected future employers to review their social media presence before hiring them and realized the consequences of a less-than-professional presence.

Reflections of the instructor/researcher.  I think back to my adoption of digital technology throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and I realize that I took an opposite path. I was trained on the use of digital innovations on company time. Through the 1980s, the newsrooms where I worked used mainframe computers, so there was no equivalent at home, just a typewriter. A later employer migrated from a mainframe system to a networked, PC-based one, and I learned Microsoft Word and the Internet on company time.

I did not purchase a cell phone for personal use until 2000, largely because by then the cost had come down significantly from previous generations of mobile technology. I learned how to text in order to keep in touch with my children. In 2005 my newsroom issued me a BlackBerry, which added email to my mobile capabilities, but I quickly stopped using it, because my personal cell phone was smaller and more convenient.

My exposure to social media began at home with America Online™ in 1997.  I experimented with the chat function, but did not become active because of time constraints. Over the years I stayed active on AOL primarily to keep up with my children as they grew through their teens and started leaving the nest. I discovered MySpace™ at work, when some of my employees started going on the site during downtime in the workday. I joined Facebook™ when my children left MySpace™ for this new venue, because I wanted to keep up with them. I joined Twitter™ during a journalism conference that suggested I should. I am most active on Facebook™ largely because this is the channel that my family uses the most.

My experience in the adoption of digital media differs from my students’, but the narrative might be less related to generation than to history. Early digital innovations were expensive and complex, requiring specialized knowledge to adopt, and therefore better suited to a workplace. Mobile technology and social media had low adoption costs and were easy to use without a long learning curve. I adopted this later digital technology on a domestic level before adapting it to professional use. The students have grown up with mobile devices and social media available to them at low cost and have not needed a larger institution, such as a school, to introduce this technology to them. One student, however, did credit his use of an Apple personal computer in school and the required keyboarding class as factors in his proficiency with his mobile device.

In thinking about the move from domestic to professional adoption of digital innovations, it is helpful to consider uses and gratification research into Internet usage, which shows that the greater the uses and gratifications, the more time people spend on the Internet (LaRose & Eastin, 2004). This would help explain why domestication of an innovation predicts its adoption (Peil & Röser, 2012). The subjects of this study, both students and researcher, seemed to translate their domestic use of mobile devices and social media to professional uses.

Negotiation of Professional-Personal Use of Technology

Actor network theory discusses a process of negotiation between the social and technological. It suggests that actors determine the usefulness of a technology and acknowledges the power of technology to shape the actors’ perception and use of the technology (Elbanna, 2011; Plesner, 2009). The students in this study found themselves negotiating and renegotiating their relationships with the technology and its professional uses. As they reinvented their use of the digital innovations, they expressed frustration with the personal uses infringing on professional time and the professional uses imposing on personal space.

Student journals. Students wrote about the tension between their personal and professional lives. One student who used Twitter™ as an important news and sports source expressed frustration with the extent of his personal use of social media, writing, “I am surprised on how much time I can use strolling past my Twitter™ feed.” Another noted that he tweeted about an interview after he had just completed it and encouraged his followers to stay tuned for the story.  Several people marked it as a “favorite,” leading the student to wonder: Are his followers really interested in the subject or are they hitting the “favorite” button because of their friendship? He concluded it didn’t matter. “In this day and age, stories need to be shared and retweeted by everyone—your friends, family, etc.”

One student found the professional uses she developed pushing fairly hard against the domesticated uses she described at the start of the semester. She wrote

I am beginning to feel like I am attached to my phone and that I always need to have it with me just in case someone calls me back about something relating to my story.  I used to carry my phone everywhere with me to keep in contact with friends and family but now I dread having it with me and it is a relief when I am away from it for a few hours or so.

Another student created separate Facebook™ and Twitter™ accounts for professional and personal use, but noted that it would take time to gain enough followers on the new accounts to make them worthwhile. Still, it was a deliberate step toward reinventing an exclusively professional social media presence. Another student expressed concern about using her personal cell phone for professional uses because of the cost.

All of the students reflected on the blurring of lines between professional and personal, as well as the real versus the virtual worlds. The students used their personal online channels for professional work and brought some professional tasks into their personal world. They blurred the lines between virtual and real professionally, contacting sources in person, by phone, via social media, in whatever way they could.

Several students found that they had to resort to multiple channels of communication to reach sources, including email, texting, and phone calls. This surprised several of them. “I had assumed that email was a dead form of communication,” one wrote.  Another found over time that he preferred communicating with sources via text, phone, and email, leaving social media for personal communication and professional promotion.  Other students, however, successfully used social media in their news-gathering process, reaching out to potential sources and crowdsourcing ideas. This process of negotiation and reinvention seemed to be ongoing, with one student who participated in the study both semesters noting toward the end that he rarely used social media for personal reasons anymore.

In the collaborative validation session in Spring 2014, students reflected on the changes and how much was attributed to professionalization and how much might be just growing up.  They talked about reading posts from years ago and being embarrassed by the triviality of the content. These students remembered being introverted in their younger years and using social media to explore persona that were more outgoing.  As they grew older, the students had not only realized the need for more professional appearances, but they also described themselves as more informed and less likely to react quickly and unreasonably to a post.

Focus group.  In the focus group, the students talked about how they negotiated their relationship with social media, especially Facebook™, through their high school years and into college. Part of the change occurred because the technology changed. They noted that when they started using Facebook™, the site was restricted to their peer group, and they were heavy users. Once their parents got accounts, their engagement waned. “Too many olds,” one said.

The more popular channel for these students was Instagram™, and several noted a divide even within the millennial generation. Some of their older friends, 25 years old and older, were on Facebook™ while their younger ones, 25 and younger, used Instagram™, and the students would go to the appropriate channel to find them. The students also viewed Facebook™ as the more professional channel and Instagram™ as a more personal one, illustrating another way to negotiate online identity. Snapchat™ had not launched during this study.

Digital Divide Among Digital Natives

Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory suggests adopters fall into one of five categories, based on the relative swiftness with which they adopt an innovation: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project survey (Duggan, 2013) found users in the millennial generation, ages 18 to 29, ahead of the curve in the diffusion of innovation. The survey in 2013 showed 73% of “digital natives” received email on their mobile device, but that left 27% who did not. It showed 64% recording video, a function many reporters are being asked to do as part of “backpack journalism,” but that left 36%, or more than a third, not using their mobile device for this purpose. A more recent Pew Research Center survey indicates 32% of young adults 18-29 consume news on social media (Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel & Shearer, 2016).  While this is significantly higher than their baby boom and older peers, it is not even a majority. While student journalists might be expected to be more media savvy, it is clear that there is a digital divide within the millennial generation.

Student journals.  Most of the students indicated in their journals that they were not only comfortable with their mobile devices and social media, but that they were willing and even eager to expand their uses to professional ones. But two students out of eight expressed choices that kept them on the analog side of the digital divide. One expressed discomfort with “big digital,” or the ability of large digital corporations to control her life. She noted, “Mobile phone companies have (smartly) worked to blur the lines between the two spaces. … I am not opposed to existing outside of that arena.” This student described herself as “huge on social media,” but she was suspicious of corporate providers who encourage integration of mobile and social media.

Another student began the semester noting that she used her house phone for all calls except for family members who need mobile-to-mobile connections to keep their costs down. She owned two prepaid phones, which allowed her as much mobile capability as she could afford in a given month, as well as a mini-tablet that gave her connectivity whenever she had wireless access, which on campus was most of the time. Cost was an issue. Two months into the study the student reported that she stopped paying for cell phone service because of budgetary issues. She still had connectivity through her mini-tablet, but no longer texted or made cell calls.

This student not only made the cell phone a low priority, but she also expressed deep reservations about social media.  She viewed the only appropriate uses of social media as news consumption and staying in touch with friends or family who were not local. “Social media to me makes me feel like you have to be popular. … I don’t need them to validate me,” she said. She chose to live outside the digital world, partly because of the cost to her budget, but also because of the potential cost to her self-esteem.

Focus group.  In the focus group, one student out of twelve reported not having a smart phone. This compares with the latest Pew Research finding that 77% of Americans and 92% of people 18-29 own a smart phone (Pew Research Center, 2017). While smart phones are becoming ever more ubiquitous, this finding does indicate that advisers need to be aware of the digital divide and not assume that all new hires have all of the mobile tools or knowledge that their college media staff may assume. Advisers need to adjust their expectations to the digital resources students have or provide help obtaining those digital resources. They may also need to provide some training.


This study started with the research question: How do journalism students make the transition from using their mobile devices for personal expression to using these tools in a professional manner as future journalists? It found that these students’ professional uses grew from personal ones, following domestication theory at a micro level. It also found that as students adopted professional uses, they had to negotiate how those uses affected their personal space, both online and offline. Students who had disengaged from the digital world were not willing to re-engage for professional reasons. They found ways within their limited digital comfort zone to conduct the required professional activities.

These findings support the domestication theory and uses and gratification research, noting that when student journalists find mobile devices and social media useful at a personal level, they are more likely to adopt them in a professional manner.

Limitations and Future Research

While these findings are not generalizable because of the small sample size and length of the study, they are useful to direct future research. This study also does not address some relevant questions, such as how much time students spend on social media versus other media and whether LinkedIn better prepares students for professional use of social media. The data and analysis from this research may be used to guide future surveys that could give a more generalizable view of student journalists and their use of mobile devices and social media.


The author thanks Dr. Paul Traudt of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for his help and feedback on this paper and to the anonymous peer reviewers for their insightful suggestions.


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Jean Reid Norman, Ph.D., is the assistant professor of emerging media and journalism at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and the adviser of The Signpost, the student-run news organization. She received her doctoral degree in 2014 in public affairs and her master’s in English in 2009 from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.