Social media and college student engagement

Posted by reyjunco on April 19, 2010 in Research |

This graph summarizes the main findings of the only two studies of social media and college student engagement. Both found relationships between time spent on social media and student engagement as described by Astin (1984) and measured through single survey items. Heiberger and Harper (2008) conducted a study of 377 undergraduate students at a Midwestern institution, while the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI, 2007) used the Your First College Year (YFCY) survey to collect data from over 31,000 students at 114 colleges and universities. Both the Heiberger and Harper (2008) and HERI (2007) studies found a positive correlation between social networking website use and college student engagement. For instance, a higher percentage of high users of social networking websites participated in and spent more time in campus organizations than low users. Additionally, more of the high users reported that they interacted daily (in the real world) with close friends and felt strong connections to them (HERI, 2007).

“Low Users” for the Heiberger & Harper study was quantified as spending less than 1 hour/day on Facebook and “High Users” spent greater than 1 hour/day while “Low Users” for the HERI study was quantified as spending less than 1 hour/week on social media (FB, Myspace) and “High Users” spent greater than 6 hours/week.


Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297-308.

Heiberger, G., & Harper, R. (2008). Have you Facebooked Astin lately? Using technology to increase student involvement. In Junco, R., & Timm, D. M., eds. Using emerging technologies to enhance student engagement. New Directions for Student Services Issue #124. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 19-35.

Higher Education Research Institute (2007). College freshmen and online social networking sites.

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  • First, my colleagues at the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) included some questions specifically about technology and social media in their 2009 survey. They discuss the results briefly in their National Report: http://www.ccsse.org/publications/national_repo…. From what I recall it's the same story as the other research in this area but it's been a while since I read it.

    Second, I think that many of us who work in this area need a much better understanding of SNSes and social media in general. I don't think that many of us have a very good understanding of it. In fact, it seems to me that many of the higher ed researchers who poke at this have a very shallow understanding of it. In particular, I don't even think we have a good definition or understanding of even the vocabulary or definitions.

    Finally, I think you'd agree that the findings above are neither surprising nor terribly interesting. It's the same thing we see every time we look at technology and student engagement: there is a positive correlation. The real question is: What is causing that correlation? One likely answer – the answer on which I would place my money if forced to pick only one answer – is that use of technology changes how faculty teach and interact in positive ways. I don't necessarily mean that in a straight-forward deterministic way; I also think that the type of faculty who use technology are often more interested in teaching, communicating, experimenting, etc. And, of course, this argument can easily be extended to administrators who use technology effectively and creatively.

  • KARupert

    I Love this chart! it is a great way to show non SM users what a positive effect SM can have on student engagement.

  • I agree that professionals working in higher education need a better understanding of social media, especially how these media impact student psychosocial development and learning. The reason that the state of the research isn't where you'd like for it to be is because that's the state of the research right now. Anytime we investigate something new, we move through the same stages: first we define and explain, then we relate, then we come up with models that show cause and effect. I think there are plenty of social media scholars who have done a great job of defining and explaining how youth use social media. Then, we have studies like the two I cited in this post where researchers have uncovered correlations. Now, we have to take the important next steps and come up with research designs that allow us to make causal interpretations. With time, we’ll extract common themes that will help us get a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the effects. One perfect example of this process is the literature on how technology use influences psychological health—we now know, after years of research, that how people use technology is better predictive of psychological health than frequency of use.

    I highly recommend Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to help get a better sense of how the scientific process progresses and evolves through stages. My own scientific epistemology draws heavily from Kuhn’s work and the philosophy of empiricism.

  • Oh no, my disappointment is not with the state of our knowledge or how it is progressing. Instead, my disappointment is with the disciplinary silos in which many of us work and how difficult and rare it is for us to reach outside of them. To restate my point, hopefully with more clarity: I am disappointed in the depth of knowledge that higher education scholars have in areas such as computer-mediated communication and I attribute that lack of knowledge largely to disciplinary constrictions. For example, I think that we are progressing towards good working definitions of SNSes (Ellison & boyd provided the most clear one) but many of the higher ed folks who perform work or research in this area are ignorant of that work and thus stumbling forward without the benefit of work already done by very smart people.

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  • Hey Rey,

    Fascinating stuff. Keep em coming.

    I wonder how we can mitigate for selection bias here…. Are more extroverted people more engaged on campus AND on social media because they're more extroverted? Not because the two have a causal relationship? Any thoughts on how to mitigate this and look for causal relationships?

  • I like how you're dropping Kuhn here…. About Social Media. Some people just truly are ninjas…. I wouldn't have made the connection!

  • Thanks Michael.

    You have an excellent point. My colleague and I are currently thinking of ways we can examine and elucidate personality type variables in social media use. The paper, Psychological Predictors of Young Adults' Use of Social Networking Sites by Wilson, Fornasier, & White has recently been released : http://bit.ly/aeStxY and speaks to these issues.

  • Thanks! Kuhn's work is so incredibly influential. I feel a blog post coming on.

  • Guest

    Thanks for your work here.

  • Would love to see some long-term research done to not only back this up, but to find the correlations between the behaviors. Maybe a more qualitative study would reveal this. Really cool findings. Especially knowing that quite a few social media folks are extroverts online and introverts in real life.

  • reyjunco

    Here is a video of a talk where I reported preliminary findings of our semester-long experimental study of using Twitter in educationally-relevant ways: http://blog.reyjunco.com/using-twitter-to-support-engagement-in-the-college-classroom

  • Nate Wiley

    Dr. Junco,

    My name is Nate Wiley, currently nearing the end of my student affairs graduate program here at Western Washington University.

    As I am nearing the completion of my degree, I am also nearing the completion of my assessment and research project that we all complete as a requirement of the program. My study focused on the impact of social networking sites on a college student's integration into the social communities in college. The research background is very Tinto-heavy, but also includes Connecting to the Net.Generation (among others). Thought you might enjoy that!

    507 residence hall students responded to my online survey, mainly in quantitative data, but also with 456 students responding to the open-ended question, “In your own words, what are the benefits of using Facebook?” Tentatively, my results echo those of these two studies; that students are using Facebook in such a way that it contributes to their social integration.

    My question for you now, I'm wondering what sort of advice you have for an emerging student affairs professional who wishes to publish his work? If you would like, my email is Nathan.Wiley@wwu.edu , or you could respond here. Either way, I'd love to hear what you have to say!

    All the best,

  • Skrats6

    How is “student engagement” defined?

  • By individual survey items. Some of the items are listed in the chart. 

  • Dr. J.

    Another fascinating study, I can see the correlation between student engagement and social media use in terms of high versus low users.  I too am conducting research on engagement and social media.  In particular my foci are in the areas of: academic impact (whether positive, negative or n/a) and the non-traditional students (e.g. community college students) as well. 

    Very useful, keep it coming there is an audience for stuff!

  • Christina Wood

    Dr. Junco,

    Thanks for posting this. I agree with other comments that have been posted in terms of wanting to see more information of what is causing the relationship between the two variables of social media and student engagement. 

    But just a little anecdotal support from my personal memory bank…when I was in college, circa 2003, one of the things that really helped me to stay connected to my classmates across campus was AIM (Facebook hadn’t really taken off yet). Everyone had an AIM profile and updating our statuses was a daily activity. Being connected through that medium helped us to keep track of our roommates, find out where the parties were that weekend, touch base on class assignments, and get messages out to our campus club members. It was our one-stop-shop for being in-the-know on campus. I would be willing to bet that students are using the newer social media platforms in the same way, but that colleges are now finding smarter ways to officially integrate it into the life of the campus. 

    Looking forward to reading more about this topic!

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