South Africa’s students are addicted to social media – but are almost unanimous in the opinion that it enhances both their academic and social lives. In fact, they believe it may even help them during exam time.

This was the key finding of the SA High-tech Student 2013 research study, released by World Wide Worx and Student Brands. The study, conducted among all universities and colleges across South Africa, included interviews with 1 435 students.

Well over half – 59% – say they were addicted to social media. However, only 16% say they were very addicted – but only 18% say they were definitely not addicted. Instant messaging (IM) has similar appeal to students: 62% say they were addicted, of which 22% say they were highly addicted to the quick fix of quick chat.

At the same time, however, they do not believe it is a bad thing. While 45% of respondents say technology, including smartphones, the Internet and social networking, gets in the way of their studies, only 10% say it was a constant problem.

A surprising 85% say it improved their studies, with a similar proportion – 83% – believing it enhanced their social lives. Asked what impact technology like smartphones and the Internet had on their lives in general, 81% say it enhanced their quality of life.

“For students, social networking and the Internet is not a good or a bad thing in itself, but has become an integral part of their lives,” says Daryl Bartkunsky, MD of Student Brands.

Facebook is the universal social destination for students, with 96% of respondents using it, while Twitter is used by 70% of respondents. Google+ slots into third place, at 47%, thanks to the pervasive use of Google Apps for student accounts at universities. Mxit still retains a strong user base, with 39% of respondents reporting they were using it. LinkedIn, the professional network, claims a 29% share, largely students who are nearing completion of their studies and using it for employment prospects. Instagram and Pinterest, relative newcomers to the social networking environment, respectively attracted 16% and 15% of respondents.

When asked which network they would use if they could only choose one, two thirds – 64% – still cited Facebook. Twitter was in distant second at 16%, followed by Google+ with 7%, Instagram 5%, Mxit 3% and LinkedIn 3%. Only 1% favoured Pinterest.

Among IM apps, similar levels of dominance were seen, this time led by WhatsApp, which was used by 79% of students participating in the survey, and BBM, at 57%. Facebook Messenger claimed 45%, and Mxit 28%.

BBM use was directly correlated with the proportion of students using BlackBerry: 57%. Despite its fading popularity worldwide, it remains the preferred phone among students. Nokia was in a distant second place, at only 20%, with Samsung further back in third place, at 14%, and the iPhone fourth at 5%.

“A critical question for cell phone brands is not necessarily who is using the device right now, but what they plan to buy next,” says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx. “Our findings in that regard were startling, and send a message to manufacturers about what students want from a phone.”

The response to this question painted a different picture of BlackBerry’s prospects, with only 15% of students saying they wanted to buy a BlackBerry next. A surprising 40% say they wanted an iPhone next. While 29% would prefer a Samsung. Nokia fell back to only 8%. The prospects for less popular brands showed slight improvement, with Sony moving from 1% of current usage to 4% of planned usage, and HTC from 1% to 3%.

“That doesn’t mean they will in fact move to the iPhone,” Bartkunsky points out. “It’s an aspirational phone, but one they can’t afford, so many will go with the low-end BlackBerry because of the cost of the phone and the affordability of BlackBerry Internet access on the older phones. Low-cost Samsung and Nokia smartphones will also benefit.”

Other findings include:

* 68% of students connect to the Internet via smartphones, 61% via laptops or notebook computers, 50% on desktop PCs – largely using universities’ and colleges’ machines – and 20% on tablets. The trend is driven by some institutions providing laptops and tablets to students, and low-cost financing of devices by student financial services like Eduloan.

* In terms of channel of access, 60% use WiFi on campus, 40% use 3G modems, and 39% use mobile data on their phones. However, a total shift to WiFi is expected in the next two years.

“By 2015, all universities are required to be wireless, providing free Internet access for students,” says Bartkunsky. “Already, three institutions – the Universities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town – have stated that all first year students will have to have a tablet or laptop by 2015.”

Goldstuck points out that the cost of mobile data is already a major inhibitor for students.

“A little more than a third of respondents were happy with what they pay for Internet access. But 31% are unhappy with the cost and 30% don’t pay at all. For students, the move away from mobile data services is a matter of when, not if.”