If you are a regular reader of this blog, you likely already know that there is a growing body of research that examines how college students use Facebook and the outcomes of such use. For instance, researchers have examined how Facebook use is related to various aspects of the college student experience including learning, student engagement, multitasking, political activity, life satisfaction, social trust, civic engagement, and political participation, development of identity and peer relationships, and relationship building and maintenance.
All of the previous research has relied on self-reported measures of Facebook use (that is, survey questions). We know from research in other areas of human behavior that there are significant differences between actual and self reported behaviors. One of my favorite examples is a study where researchers found that up to 50% of self-reported non-smoking head and neck cancer patients were indeed smoking as measured by exhaled carbon monoxide levels and levels of a nicotine metabolite in their blood.
As you might imagine, differences between self-reported and actual uses of Facebook could drastically change or even negate findings of how Facebook use is related to the aforementioned outcomes. My latest paper published in Computers in Human Behavior, Comparing actual and self-reported measures of Facebook use examines these differences.
Here is what I did: I paid students to allow me to install a monitor on their computers for one month. I also surveyed them to ask them how much time they spent on Facebook and how many times they logged in to the site. I also monitored/asked about other forms of tech/social media use (like Twitter and email).
Here is what I found: As you can see in the scatterplot below, there was a significant positive correlation between self-reported and actual Facebook use (Pearson’s r = .587, p < .001).
However, and here is the really interesting part, students significantly overestimated the amount of time they spent on Facebook. They reported spending an average of 149 minutes per day on Facebook which was significantly higher than the 26 minutes per day they actually spent on the site (t(41) = 8.068, p < .001).
What is going on? In the paper, I go into much more detail about why there is such a large and significant difference between actual and self-reported Facebook use, as well as why the two are significantly correlated. In brief:
- It could be that self-report questions aren’t specific enough to capture frequency of Facebook usage. Students may interpret a question asking “how much time do you spend on Facebook each day?” as meaning “how much time are you logged in?” or as a post-hoc focus group suggested “how much time do you spend thinking about Facebook?”
- Students may have implicit theories about how they use technology that are likely based on messages received by the media and adults (i.e., “youth use Facebook a lot!”). This would lead them to give inflated estimates of the actual amount of time they spend on the site.
- Students may have accessed Facebook from multiple devices. This is certainly an important consideration, especially given the popularity of mobile Facebook use. However, I conducted analyses to try to explain the unaccounted-for self-reported time with mobile use and found that there was no way to explain the large difference between actual and self-reported time. Students could have used Facebook from other computers that were not being monitored; however, that is unlikely given their overall computer use. This is definitely an important facet to study in future research.
- Students (and people in general) might not be able to estimate Facebook use. This could very well be a function of how we’ve developed schemas about technology use. For instance, drivers often estimate driving distances in miles and time to destination; however, Internet users typically do not estimate frequency and intensity of use in time.
Students who allowed their computer use to be monitored might have very different online behaviors than those who didn’t (although there were no differences between students who chose to install the monitoring software and those who didn’t on demographic variables and on all but one of the variables of interest). Another limitation is the possibility of observer effects or that the students behaved differently because they knew they were being monitored. Students may have used other devices, such as their cell phones, to access Facebook which would have provided a lower estimate of actual use.
It’s clear that self-reported measures of Facebook use can approximate but are not accurate measures of actual use. The inconsistency between self-reported and actual measurements will obfuscate how Facebook use is related to outcomes, signaling a problem for research relying on self-report measures. However, all is not lost. Self-reported measures can give us a good approximation of frequency of use and hopefully, future extensions of this research can come up with more accurate self-report measures or with a “correction factor” for self-reported use.
On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published Mobile Apps for Kids in which they reported the results of their recent survey of how well mobile apps for kids conform to Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requirements.
The results were alarming: 59% of apps transmitted the mobile device ID (which includes among other things the app name, the app version number, the developer, a time stamp, the operating system, and the device model), 3% of apps shared geolocation, and 1% shared a phone number. 56% of these apps transmitted this information to ad networks, analytics companies, or other third parties. However, only 20% of the apps disclosed information about their data collection practices. Put another way, 80% of the apps are in violation of both the letter and spirit of COPPA (which requires that websites and/or online services that collect information from children must : 1. Provide notice of what types of information is being collected, how it is being used, and disclosure practices and 2. Obtain verifiable parental consent in order to collect, use, or disclose children’s data).
Why is this a big deal?
The information collected from these apps could be used to find or contact children because they collect geolocation and phone numbers. Remember the uproar when the iPhone was secretly tracking and storing your every move? This, I would posit, is even worse. These apps are tracking children’s activities across different apps without their parents’ knowledge or consent. The information collected was often transmitted to advertising networks with no disclosures as to why the advertising networks needed it or how they would use it. Such tracking builds profiles of children (their likes, dislikes, browsing habits, etc.) for insidious forms of marketing. This is analogous to the tracking and advertising that happens on the web – of which most adults are unaware. Through such tracking, advertisers can build very accurate profiles of children to “push” advertising—it’s a generally subconscious and powerful form of tracking and marketing and one that we should be protecting children from until they have the cognitive capabilities to resist such influences.
I don’t know about you but I don’t trust tracking and ad agencies and undisclosed third parties.
What can we do about it?
If you are a parent, you can’t do much about it. Remember that 80% of the apps provided no disclosure about the fact they were collecting data so it’s not like you can discriminate between apps that send this information and those that don’t (unless of course, an app explicitly states that they don’t send this information).
We need to put pressure on app developers to provide appropriate disclosures. Reuters reported that the “Association for Competitive Technology, which represents more than 5,000 small and medium-sized app developers, said developers were often unsophisticated about legal obligations but that the group held workshops and boot camps to train them in best practices.” Ok sure, they may be unsophisticated about legal obligations; however, this statement suggests that developers seem to have little concern about the ethics of collecting and sharing data from minors.
A coalition that includes the Application Developers Alliance, the ACLU, and the World Privacy Forum has been working on standardizing a short-form notice for app privacy disclosures. Of course, the advertisers aren’t too keen on this and are trying to come up with their own self-enforcement policies.
Lastly, we need to support the FTC in expanding their enforcement of COPPA to include geolocation and personal identifiers such as device IDs. Many have argued that COPPA is outdated and this is yet another instance that emphasizes this point.
Image credit: ohmeaghan http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohmeaghan/6014480823
My most recent paper on multitasking, In-class multitasking and academic performance, has uncovered some interesting results. I conducted a survey of 1,839 college students and asked them how often they multitask during class by using Facebook, texting, emailing, searching for content not related to the class, IMing, and talking on the phone. I also collected students’ actual overall GPAs for the semester in which the study was conducted. In this post, I’ll only focus on the high frequency and moderate frequency activities:
Texting was a high frequency activity: 69% of students reported texting during class.
Using Facebook, searching for content not related to the class, and emailing were moderate frequency activities: 28% of students said they used Facebook during class, 28% of students said they used email during class, and 21% of students said they searched for content during class.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Using Facebook and texting during class were significantly negatively related to overall semester GPA after controlling for gender, race/ethnicity, and Internet skill. However, emailing and searching during class were not related to GPA.
While incongruent with the literature on multitasking in the field of cognitive science, the results are congruent with recent research finding comparable results. In a similar study, Shelia Cotten and I found that using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively associated with overall college GPA while emailing, searching, talking on the phone, and instant messaging were not. Furthermore, an experimental study by Wood et al. (2012) found that students who used Facebook while attending to a lecture scored significantly lower on tests of lecture material than those who were only allowed to take notes using paper and pencil; however, the scores of students who texted, emailed or sent IMs did not differ significantly from students in control groups.
What is going on?
While further research is warranted, I’ve got a few hypotheses: First, there may be something about the technologies themselves that leads to poorer outcomes. Second, it is possible that the discrepancies in outcomes may lie in the nature of how the technologies are used and the frequency with which they are employed. For instance, Rosen et al. (2011) found that students who sent and received the most number of text messages while watching a lecture video scored lower on a test of the lecture material than those who sent the least number of messages; however, there was no difference in scores between the group of students who sent the middle amount of messages and the other groups. My final hypothesis to explain the discrepancy between Facebook and texting and the other technologies is related to the activities students engage in while using each. For instance, my research has shown that how Facebook is used is a better predictor of academic outcomes than how much time is spent on the site.
The standard correlation vs. causation limitations apply: this is a cross-sectional and correlational design and more research is certainly warranted. While the sample on which this research was based was representative of the overall university population, it may not be representative of all institutions in the United States. The fact that participants were recruited via email and that the survey was administered online could have biased the sample towards students who regularly use email (and perhaps who multitask more). A final limitation was that the frequency with which students multitask during class was assessed via self report.
Image credit: anna-b http://www.flickr.com/photos/anna-b/3218868484/
My friends over at Project Information Literacy have just released this infographic to summarize their recent research on how college students find and use information. Data in this infographic come from PIL’s publications Balancing Act: How College Students Manage Technology While in the Library during Crunch Time and Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age. If you are interested in college students and information literacy, check out PIL’s other reports here.
This infographic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license so feel free to share on your own website by linking back to Project Information Literacy.
Recently, Kaplan Test Prep released data from a survey showing how college admissions officers check applicant profiles in order to make admissions decisions. This isn’t a new phenomenon: since 2008, I’ve been answering questions about whether residence life, judicial affairs, and other university departments should monitor their students’ Facebook accounts. Here are some reasons why I think such evaluations of applicant Facebook profiles is unethical:
Discrimination in admissions decisions: There is absolutely no way that admissions officers can evaluate student Facebook profiles fairly. First, there is a lack of resources: admissions offices barely have enough staff to keep the machinery of recruitment and the traditional evaluation process going, let alone devote a staff of 10, 100, or 1,000 people to review the Facebook profiles of all entering students.
Even if admissions offices had the necessary resources to evaluate every applicant’s Facebook profile, it would still be incredibly unfair. Not all students are sophisticated enough to hide their profiles from admissions officers (or to create ideal-self profiles). Those who aren’t sophisticated enough are at the mercy of admissions officers looking for an easy way to make their applicant pool smaller. Furthermore, research shows that Internet skills (in this case, sophistication in knowing how to or why you should hide your profile) are related to race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Facebook-stalking applicants then is also a discriminatory admissions practice in the way that we have outlawed other types of discriminatory practices.
Let’s posit, if you will, that there was a way to evaluate all students fairly: why would admissions officers want to evaluate Facebook profiles anyway? If an admissions officer is going to spend time to evaluate a student’s profile, shouldn’t he or she instead spend that time reviewing the student’s criminal record? Or perhaps reviewing how they can place the applicant in a series of courses to help them academically? Or even ensuring that the student will easily integrate into a social support network? Oh yeah, those things would be too hard to do.
Frame of reference: When admissions officers evaluate student profiles they are doing so from their own frame of reference. Oftentimes, admissions officers are typically much older than applicants. Therefore, they evaluate Facebook profiles based on what they would or wouldn’t post with total disregard for what is developmentally appropriate for youth. In my experiences, I have never met an admissions officer with profound knowledge of youth psychological and identity development, let alone how new media affect such processes.
In the Kaplan study, 35% of admissions officers said that they have “discovered something online about an applicant that negatively impacted their application.” Again, this evaluation is more than likely applied unfairly. What might rise to the level of concern for one admissions officer, might not for another. Further, an admissions officer might see something considered Facebook fashionable for youth as inappropriate. Let’s say for example that what the admissions officer sees is indeed “inappropriate” (i.e., distasteful), wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of student you’d want to admit to your university? Colleges and universities have as their primary purpose the mission to educate and help youth develop and therefore, such a student would benefit greatly from further opportunities for growth.
The right to be forgotten: Some of what the 35% of admissions officers have seen on applicant Facebook profiles are, to put it bluntly, mistakes. They may not be seen as mistakes to the applicant at that time. Again, a normal part of the learning and psychological developmental processes of youth is making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Consider some of the mistakes that you’ve made when you were younger and pick the most embarrassing one. Now imagine that there is a permanent public record of that mistake available for all to see and to evaluate from their own frame. Seen years later or by people who are older or have already navigated the same developmental stages, such behavior is interpreted much more negatively than it should be. With real-name policies on sites like Facebook and a dearth of laws to allow online mistakes to be forgotten, youth are at a great risk of being misunderstood and discriminated against in the application process.
In summary, the practice of Facebook-stalking university applicants must come to an end. If a university admissions office is serious about evaluating a student’s social media presence, then they must first prove why reviewing Facebook profiles is a more effective use of their time than reviewing other data. Furthermore, the admissions office should be prepared to show how they would fairly evaluate Facebook profiles in a manner equal to how they review materials in the traditional evaluation process. I suspect that if the former can ever be rationalized, the latter would be impossible.
Thanks to Annie Shreffler (@annieshreff) for her feedback on a draft of this post.
Image credit: escapedtowisconsin http://www.flickr.com/photos/69805768@N00/3292899689/
- Greg and I talk about our latest research on using Twitter to support students throughout their first year of college.
- I summarize my recent research on using Facebook in education.
- Greg explores the future of higher education and how new technologies can be used to effectively improve student success.
- Liz discusses how to use Facebook to market your institution and programs.
- Ed explains how to frame productive social media use to administrators.
- I get snarky about EdTech startups and how they don’t communicate with educators.
Listen to the podcast here:
Or you can download the file by right-clicking here and selecting “Save As.” Here are the slides for the presentation portion:
I’d love to hear what you think. Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.