Health and Safety: Less-Common Topics

When UW–Madison asks Badger parents what concerns them the most when they send their students off to college, health and safety issues understandably top the list. And when people think about these aspects on a college campus, a handful of topics dominate the discussion: flu, crimes such as theft, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual assault, and the like.

These topics are often top of mind — and for good reason. They are serious concerns. Fortunately, the campus offers many resources to address key health and safety issues, including the UW Police Department (UWPD); SAFEwalk, which provides walking escorts for nighttime travels on campus; and University Health Services, which provides a 24-hour crisis intervention line and offers services for alcohol and drug abuse, mental health, sexual health, eating disorders, sexual assault, domestic violence, and more. Parents can visit the websites for UHS, UWPD and the Division of Student Life — as well as the UW’s campus safety Web page, SafeU — for a more comprehensive list of on- and off-campus resources.

Nevertheless, safety and crime concerns also manifest in inconspicuous — but still important — realms. For example, does social media affect students’ happiness? Is renters’ insurance really necessary? How can students improve their sleep habits? Understandably, topics like these are discussed with less frequency on campus, but they still apply to a wide range of the student body. To address these less-common subjects, the Parent Program turned to campus experts, fielding advice that parents can pass along to their students.

The psychology and safety of social media and online dating

Social media has its well-known benefit — foremost, the ability to stay connected to friends, family, and acquaintances. But do Twitter, Facebook, and other networking sites make students’ lives happier? It depends on how students use them, says Catalina Toma, an assistant professor of communication arts and expert on the psychological effects of social media.

People naturally want to highlight the most positive aspects of their lives when using social media. Toma has found that this idealistic — but still honest — digital version of themselves doesn’t just impress their friends: “Research shows that when people examine and spend time on their own Facebook profile … they experience a boost in self-esteem,” she says. When pictures and posts pile up “likes” and “favorites,” spirits tend to rise.

However, that boost may quickly dissipate when students start browsing other posts, Toma says. They could get a distorted perception of their peers’ happiness. “It’s a social comparison process where people don’t realize that other people also do what they do, which is broadcast positive events in their life,” she says.

Even online dating is turning vogue with the proliferation of smartphone dating apps such as Tinder. And while that may concern parents, Toma believes that the Internet is “not an intrinsically more dangerous space” than everyday life. She advises that students use the same safety precautions with online dating as they do with any situation — such as first meeting in a public space and earlier in the day rather than late at night. In 2012, Toma published research on online dating profiles and found that deceptive people were less likely to use the first-person pronoun “I,” discuss their physical appearance, and include a detailed description. “Almost everybody lied about something, but the magnitude was often small,” Toma said then.

But Toma adds that the Internet actually offers some unique safety nets: the ability to search criminal records and fact-check erroneous claims through social media profiles. “The Internet is a resource that people should take advantage of if they feel that trust is an issue,” she says.

Every student’s nightmare: Adequate sleep

Everyone knows that sleep is essential — but for college students, it can be equally elusive. And that’s a problem, according to Camilla Matthews, an associate professor of pediatrics and a pediatric sleep expert at UW Health.

Sleep deprivation can create difficulties with attention, memory, creativity, and organization; lead to mood issues such as irritability, frustration, and dejection; increase risk-taking behaviors, including inattentive driving and drinking; and compound other health concerns, such as obesity.

Matthews estimates that college students should get at least eight or nine hours of sleep each night. Their favorite stopgaps for sleep — naps and caffeine — are not true solutions, she says. If students do nap, they should only do so in the early afternoon and limit the snoozing to no more than thirty minutes. And if consuming caffeine is inevitable, they should try to stop after 2 p.m. “The stimulating effects of caffeine can wear off much sooner than the effects on sleep,” Matthews adds. “Caffeine can still cause difficulty falling asleep even if you no longer feel ‘awake’ from [it].”

She also suggests that students create their own space in the bedroom, reserving it for rest only. “Ideally, the bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark,” Matthews says. And that means — surely to the chagrin of students — that electronic devices should be kept out of the bedroom. TVs, phones, computers, and tablets tempt at the bedside, and their sounds and alerts can interrupt sleep. In addition, she notes, their light level actually affects the body’s internal sleep clock.

If students follow these tips, yet still experience difficulty falling asleep, it could be a sign of an underlying primary sleep issue, Matthews says. Other symptoms — including frequent snoring, restless legs, and excessive sleepiness despite adequate amounts of sleep — could be reasons for students to contact their primary care physicians.

Ensuring peace of mind: Renters’ insurance

As students go about securing on- and off-campus housing, they are usually preoccupied with four factors: the cost, the location, the quality, and the roommates. But students ought to consider securing their possessions, too, say experts Helena Manning and Emma Coenen of UW–Madison’s Campus Area Housing(CAH), an off-campus rental listing and information service coordinated by the UW’s Campus and Visitor Relations office.

According to UWPD, theft is the most-reported crime on campus. Many thefts occur when victims leave their belongings unattended in public settings. However, students’ predictable absences from their dorms, apartments, and houses — due to holidays, semester breaks, and busy schedules — also lead to vulnerability. Renters’ insurance can serve as a safety net for unsuspecting students, CAH says.

Depending on the policy, renters’ insurance can protect students from the high costs of accidents (such as replacement of possessions lost to a fire), personal liability and damages (for example, if someone gets injured at a residence), and even identity theft — things that landlord insurance scarcely covers.

Renters’ insurance is “generally one of the least expensive types of insurance available,” CAH adds. Although cost greatly varies, renters’ insurance is advertised for as little as $10 per month for low-level plans.

Students should consider keeping an inventory of their possessions to help determine sufficient coverage and validate recovery claims. Students who are on their parents’ renters or homeowners policies may already be covered to an extent — especially if they’re living in the residence halls. “It is important for students to talk with their parents about their policy to find out what coverage options are available,” CAH says. “Even if students are covered on their parents’ plan, they might have a low recovery limit and would want to consider adding additional coverage.”

Staying active with Rec Sports

Open recreational basketball and volleyball at 6:30 a.m.; a yoga and Pilates class at 7 a.m.; open recreational swimming at 11 a.m.; a stationary cycling class at 12:05 p.m.; a Zumba fitness class at 3:45 p.m.; a Racquetball Club session at 6 p.m.; intramural volleyball and dodgeball games at 7 p.m.; and a club dance team practice at 8:45 p.m.

That’s merely a condensed look at an average Wednesday at the UW’s Southeast Recreational Facility, one of several Rec Sports facilities on campus. In short, “there are all sorts of options” for students to stay fit on campus, says John Horn, director of the UW’s Division of Recreational Sports.

The benefits of recreational sports can be wide ranging. Studies show that participation in recreational, wellness, or intramural programs enhances students’ college experience — or more simply, “produces a better student,” Horn says. On average, according to Horn, students who keep active and involved receive better grades, miss fewer classes due to illness, and experience an enhanced social life.

Even students who played at a varsity level in high school can’t necessarily continue doing so in college, but there are plenty of alternatives on campus, including pickup games, recreational and competitive intramural leagues, and traveling club teams. Students who aren’t inclined to play the more traditional sports such as basketball, tennis, and volleyball can still find their niche through other Rec Sports offerings: an Olympic-size pool, ice rink, weight rooms, indoor tracks, racquetball courts, spin classes, yoga rooms, and more.

It seems students are aware of their options: four out of five students have used Rec Sports facilities at least once during the past year. “Students on this campus tend to participate at a very high level,” Horn says. And there’s good reason for that, extending beyond the exercise: students are already paying to use Rec Sports facilities. Through segregated fees, each full-time student pays $42.78 per semester for access to the facilities.

Safety first: Biking and walking on campus

When some 40,000 students, more than 2,000 faculty, and thousands more staff members, residents, and visitors converge on the UW’s 1.5-square-mile main campus each day, something inevitable happens: a transportation jam.

“I use the intersections of Charter [Street] and Linden [Drive] and Charter and Observatory [Drive] as class projects almost every semester because of the challenges they provide,” says David Noyce, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory. “For fifty minutes of the hour, the intersections are very quiet, but for the fifteen minutes between classes, they are crazy.”

Nearby, the central campus intersection of University Avenue and Park Street is also a hotbed of congestion. Between 2008 and 2013, that intersection led all other Madison locations with ten incidents involving bicycles and motor vehicles, according to data gathered by the Capital Times. During the past two years, according to UWPD, there have been at least eight fatalities involving pedestrians or bikers in Madison. Pedestrians or bicyclists were at fault in three-quarters of those accidents.

What’s to blame for most accidents involving pedestrians and bikers? “In a nutshell,” Noyce says, “disobedience.” No doubt in a rush, student pedestrians and bicyclists can be tempted to disregard traffic control devices such as signs, markings, and signals. But such lax attitudes have consequences. “Unexpectedly mixing modes — bikes on sidewalks, pedestrians crossing outside of crosswalks, mopeds on sidewalks — creates significant safety problems,” Noyce says.

Noyce’s final piece of advice for students is simple but potent: “Be aware of your surroundings and avoid distractions.” Talking on cellphones, texting, and using headphones qualify as distractions for pedestrians. He also advises students to treat bicycles as vehicles and use designated crossing locations when walking on campus. And although it may not complement today’s fashion trends, student bikers should always consider wearing helmets. Studies have shown that helmets can reduce the risk of bicycle-related head and facial injuries by upwards of 80 percent.

Building up credit, avoiding a crisis

Students are no strangers to debt. Half of the UW’s students have taken out loans to attend college, so it’s easy to dismiss the idea of your student accruing even more debt via credit cards. But if your student is responsible, it’s worth consideration, says J. Michael Collins, an associate professor of human ecology and director of the Center for Financial Security.

“I’m always an advocate of encouraging parents to have that conversation with their kids and to set up a card — [for one], to start to develop some responsibility and some experience with these cards, especially when they have some oversight from their parents,” Collins says. “But also because it does reflect on the credit record.”

Generally, taking out a credit card is a joint decision for students and their parents due to the 2009 Credit CARD Act. People under the age of 21 must now verify an adequate source of income or have a qualified co-signer — often a parent — to take out a credit card.

Payment patterns should determine how students use their credit cards, Collins says. If students aren’t paying off their debt in a timely manner, he suggests reserving the card for larger, necessity purchases, such as an emergency flight home. If students are able to make full payments every month, the card can simply be used as a transaction tool.

“The problem comes when you charge pizzas or your daily living expenses, and you don’t pay it off every month,” he says. “Then you’re paying interest on a pizza — and for a student card, an 18 to 20 percent interest rate is not out of bounds.”

Collins also advises that students stick to one card and consider other options — such as secured credit cards, through which consumers put down a security deposit equating to the credit line.

If students do find themselves in substantial debt, Collins suggests seeking out nonprofit credit counseling agencies, which can help sort out options and work with credit card issuers. “The main thing is just to pay attention,” he says. “When we see students who really have gotten in trouble, it’s because they’ve just stuck their head in the sand. … Hoping it goes away just makes the problem exponentially worse.”

— Preston Schmitt