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Jury out on Facebook’s impact on grades

By Dennis Carter, Assistant Editor
May 15th, 2009

Two contradictory studies about Facebook usage and grade-point average have higher education officials questioning if the social networking giant has any impact on students’ classroom performance.

Just weeks after Ohio State University research suggested that college students who used Facebook every day had consistently lower grades than students who did not, a Northwestern University study released May 7 concluded there was no correlation between Facebook usage and bad grades.

Students who reported checking status updates, joining fan groups, and chatting with friends and relatives on Facebook several times a day had a GPA as much as a letter grade lower than their counterparts, according to the Ohio State study, which included 219 college students and was released in April. Sixty-five percent of Facebook members checked their accounts at least once a day, according to the research. Seventy-nine percent of students said Facebook did not have any effect on their academic performance, a finding that seemingly was contradicted by the data.

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Jury out on Facebook’s impact on grades

By Dennis Carter, Assistant Editor
May 15th, 2009

Two contradictory studies about Facebook usage and grade-point average have higher education officials questioning if the social networking giant has any impact on students’ classroom performance.

Just weeks after Ohio State University research suggested that college students who used Facebook every day had consistently lower grades than students who did not, a Northwestern University study released May 7 concluded there was no correlation between Facebook usage and bad grades.

Students who reported checking status updates, joining fan groups, and chatting with friends and relatives on Facebook several times a day had a GPA as much as a letter grade lower than their counterparts, according to the Ohio State study, which included 219 college students and was released in April. Sixty-five percent of Facebook members checked their accounts at least once a day, according to the research. Seventy-nine percent of students said Facebook did not have any effect on their academic performance, a finding that seemingly was contradicted by the data.

The Northwestern University study included more than 1,000 undergraduates from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a "nationally representative cross-sectional sample" of students between the ages of 14 and 22. The Northwestern researchers said students who logged onto Facebook several times a day were not more likely to get bad grades than students who abstained from the social networking site.

Higher-education officials and social networking experts said long-term research–a study that lasts several years–would be needed before academics could determine more definitively whether using Facebook and other sites has an effect on student grades.

"The results are suggestive, but they are not definitive," said Royce Singleton, a sociology professor at Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass., where he researched Facebook usage with two other colleges in March, using random samplings. "I don’t think there’s any reason to be alarmed about the potentially harmful effects of Facebook. It just begs for further research."

Singleton said his own study’s results showed some association between Facebook usage and lower GPA, but he cautioned against assuming that social networking will always result in lower grades. More than 400 students were surveyed at Holy Cross, Pomona College in California, and Bowdoin College in Maine. Singleton said the average student respondent spent 53 minutes per day on Facebook, with some students spending as much as five hours every day on the site.

The research could show that students who aren’t dedicated to studying are more prone to spend hours daily on Facebook, Singleton said, implying that greater use of Facebook is a symptom of poor study habits, and not the other way around.

Scott Testa, a marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said the vast majority of students he interacts with every year have a Facebook account. He said that while some students spend too much time on the site, he has spoken to standout pupils who log into their accounts a few times every day and manage to maintain a high GPA.

"The idea that Facebook would make you dumber to me sounds hard to believe," said Testa, who tracks social networking developments on his blog, ScottTesta.com. "I’d really have to question that assertion."

Mark Bauerlein drew media attention last year when his book, The Dumbest Generation, questioned and criticized young people’s technological immersion, arguing that it trapped teenagers and 20-somethings in small social networking worlds and often served as a distraction. In an interview with eCampus News, Bauerlein said the recent Facebook research from Ohio State and Northwestern doesn’t track students long enough to determine any harmful impact of Facebook or similar sites.

"People who use Facebook and send 3,000 texts a month and watch a lot of TV; you’ll find that for them, the time devoted to the books goes down," said Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "You only have a finite number of minutes in the day."

Bauerlein said college students’ Facebook use might vary from year to year in college–as course loads change and students become immersed in a major or concentration–so a study that examined Facebook log-ins for three or four years might persuade academics.

"I don’t know if it says anything on Facebook and deeper intellectual development," he said. "The research can’t catch up with the technology. All you can get are snapshots."

Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and a co-author of the school’s Facebook study, said despite the research that contradicts the Ohio State findings, students, parents, and faculty should be leery of students spending hours every day on Facebook.

"If somebody’s spending an inordinate amount of time on Facebook at the expense of studying, his or her academic performance may suffer, just as it might from spending an excessive time on any activity," Hargittai said. "We need more research with more nuanced data to better understand how social networking site usage may relate to academic performance."

Links:

Northwestern University Facebook study

Ohio State University Facebook study

The Dumbest Generation


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