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Feeling homesick? Be careful how you use technology

Homesickness. That familiar pang of sadness that hits when you live away from familiar people and places. Indeed, research shows almost everyone who moves away feels homesick. Everything from eating unfamiliar foods for breakfast to not being able to watch the footy on TV and missing a parent’s birthday can be enough to trigger common symptoms of homesickness like low mood, anxiety and a pre-occupation with thoughts of home.

Nowadays, of course, we have social media and video chat to help us keep in touch with home when we’re overseas. And with more students than ever choosing to study abroad in the name of expanded horizons and better employment prospects, technology is an essential travel companion. Gone are the days of expensive international phone calls and snail mail – thanks to Facebook and FaceTime, you need never miss another wedding pic or Friday night chat.

But are these comforts that keep us connected helpful or harmful? Can they potentially get in the way of the very experience you’ve sought out overseas?

FOMO and feeling homesick

Deakin communications and PR graduate Trina Cort didn’t think she’d feel homesick during a summer internship at a global firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but she says the experience was a lot more challenging than she expected.

‘Going into it, I thought it was going to be more laidback, but it was pretty full-on as I worked full-time for eight weeks,’ she says. ‘And Malaysia is such a different culture to Australia and the US where I grew up, so it was very confronting in some areas. I missed Australia a lot more than I thought I was going to.’

Trina says chatting to friends back home via Skype and Facebook helped to alleviate some of her homesickness, but using social media presented a challenge: FOMO (fear of missing out).

‘I was there over the Australian summer, so it was hard seeing people having fun and partying all the time while I was working full-time,’ she says. ‘I found social media was a problem because I experienced a lot of FOMO. Sometimes I’d just want to talk to friends back home about what was going on there instead of interacting with people in Kuala Lumpur.’

'I missed Australia a lot more than I thought I was going to.'

Trina Cort,
Graduate, Deakin University

Likewise, Deakin business alumni Emily Ryan also struggled with feeling homesick and FOMO during her remote year, a program where remote workers travel and work around the world for one year, spending each month in a different city.

‘I found social media created a lot of FOMO’ she says. ‘Not just for me but for those at home too. You carry a sense of guilt for making a decision to do something new with your life away from family and friends, paired with acknowledging you’ve put yourself into the situation of being away from home. So I decided to stay away from social media a little bit because I didn’t want to feel like I was missing out on what everyone was doing at home.’

Trina and Emily’s experiences are common. Why? Even though it may seem like checking social media helps to alleviate anxiety about that party or holiday you missed, it doesn’t. FOMO is associated with lower mood and life satisfaction, and research reveals social media is one of the main contributors. What’s more, the phenomenon is a significant risk factor for the development of problematic smart phone use.

Striking a balance 

Social media and video chat can also get in the way of face-to-face experiences in your new city and exacerbate homesickness, says Deakin graduate Steven Rennie, who completed six weeks of intensive Spanish study in Lima, Peru.

‘I was pretty homesick the first two or three days I was there – I was really jet-lagged, stressed and couldn’t sleep,’ he says. ‘I got on Facebook and messaged some people, but they were all busy. It was 3am and I was freaking out because no one was responding.

‘It made my homesickness worse. If I’d just tried to deal with it, actually gone out and done stuff in Lima, I probably would’ve felt better.’

Steven says it’s important to combat homesickness by making friends and building networks in your new city before jumping online. ‘Establish a physical presence in the place before you try to use social media, otherwise it becomes a panic thing rather than a way to talk to people back home who you care about,’ he says.

‘In time, I found that social media helped to bridge the gap between home and where I was, whereas initially I was using it as a way not to engage with the fact I was somewhere else.’

Emily agrees: ‘Combatting homesickness is more about what happens offline,’ she says. ‘For me, it was about making human connections like joining an interest group.’

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