Social media in higher ed: Friend or foe?


One social media researcher was critical of the OnlineEducation.net stats.

Facebook and studying can be an academically toxic combination, lowering grades by up to 20 percent. This is just part of an infographic that has gone viral on the web and grabbed the attention of educators and their students this spring.

The inforgraphic, “Is Social Media Ruining Students?” published in April by OnlineEducation.net, distills reams of social media research and lists the pros and cons of how social sites, especially Twitter and Facebook, are used on campuses.

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The potentially devastating impact of checking Facebook notifications while studying for exams, midterms, and finals is among the infographic’s most jarring stats. Eight in 10 students don’t believe the statistic, according to OnlineEducation.net, a database for prospective college students.

The infographic also shows that students who abstain from Facebook – only 4 percent of U.S. college students can claim this – work three times more per week than their counterparts on the popular site.

Not all the news is bad: Students said following Twitter ensures they’re “instantly” aware of campus emergencies, and tweeting students see grades increase by half a grade point in courses that use the microblogging site.

For some students, Facebook is more than just a way to kill time between classes. Students have reported “frantic cravings” for the website, and the term “Facebook addiction” is searched for 350 times more than “cigarette addiction.”

Reynol Junco, a social media researcher and an associate professor at Lock Haven University, said in a May 3 blog post that the inforgraphic’s addiction portion misleadingly assumes that Facebook addiction “is equivalent” to other addictions.

“That being said, I do believe that people engage in problematic internet behaviors and that higher education professionals must intervene to help students exhibiting these behaviors before they suffer negative academic and psychosocial consequences,” said Junco, who is also a psychologist.

Junco took issue with many parts of the OnlineEducation.net infographic.

The infographic charges that heavy Facebook users are narcissistic. The infographic, Junco said, only cites one research paper that examines social media’s impact on self esteem.

Junco said other research paints a more nuanced picture of how Facebook, for instance, changes the way students see themselves.

“While it would be really provocative to say that Facebook users are more narcissistic or that Facebook makes people narcissistic, there isn’t enough data to make either claim,” he said.

Alarming claims included in the OnlineEducation.net infographic should be balanced against other worthwhile research that examines the myriad ways Facebook and Twitter have changed higher education, Junco said.

“We must be careful to ensure we’ve analyzed all of the available data before making sweeping generalizations, especially in the field of social media research,” he said. “To do otherwise does a disservice to the scientific process, to our students, and to the public at large.”

The Twitter study referenced in the infographic that claims tweeting students saw significant jumps in grade point average was first published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Living last fall.

Students who used Twitter also scored higher on a student engagement exam administered at a midsized U.S. college, which was unnamed in the article.

The group of tweeting students became more active on the social media site as the semester progressed.

The group’s number of tweets remained steady—with minor increases during some weeks—until the twelfth week of the semester, when the group pumped out 612 140-character messages to each other and their instructors.

Junco said Twitter could remain the preferred social media outlet in higher education partly because “a student doesn’t have to worry about a professor seeing a picture of them at last weekend’s party on Twitter like they might on Facebook.”