By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the “Is Social Media Ruining Students?” infographic that made its way around the web last week. As a social media researcher, I couldn’t help but notice there were a conspicuous number of studies missing. Omitting these additional studies gives an incomplete picture of the scientific evidence and leads to erroneous conclusions. Without delving too deeply into the philosophy of science, we need to make every effort to include data that go against our preconceived notions so we don’t arrive at erroneous conclusions (for more on this, I encourage you to read Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations).
In this post, let’s consider the evidence from additional studies and the general logic about each claim. I will then rank each claim as weak, moderate, or strong based on the body of research evidence.
Yes, that’s our study about Twitter and grades. Unfortunately, what’s missing is that we used Twitter in specific, educationally-relevant ways—in other words, examining what students are doing on the platform is more important than a binary user/nonuser variable. For the “Facebook Effect” on grades, one study by Kirschner and Karpinski (2010) was cited that found that Facebook users reported having lower GPA’s. There’s other evidence that calls these findings into question. A study by Pasek, More, & Hargittai (2009) found no relationship between Facebook use and grades in three different samples and another by Kolek and Saunders (2008) found no differences in grades between Facebook users and non-users. I’ve also got some new data on this, but I won’t spoil the surprise until the paper is ready.
Verdict: Weak Evidence. There is conflicting evidence about the relationship between Facebook use and grades. While one study has found a negative relationship, this finding has not yet been replicated. Since they mentioned multitasking, it’s worth noting that there is a great deal of research showing that multitasking has a detrimental effect on learning as well as other high-stakes activities (like driving).
There’s certainly enough evidence (Heiberger & Harper, 2008; HERI, 2007) to show that there is a relationship between involvement in campus activities and Facebook use. Valenzuela et al. (2009) also found that intensity of Facebook use was related to civic participation. Furthermore, I have new data that show a clear relationship between time spent on Facebook and amount of time spent in extracurricular activities.
Verdict: Moderate Evidence. Using Facebook does not necessarily make you more involved (repeat after me “correlation does not equal causation”). It could be that more involved students spend more time on Facebook. We need controlled studies to examine whether there is a causal relationship between the two.
There is a lot of research on the psychosocial correlates of Internet use. A good way to summarize is that Internet use for communicative purposes is related to better psychosocial outcomes while Internet use for noncommunicative purposes is related to poorer outcomes. Cotten (2008) and Huang (2010) both provide good reviews of the literature. Additionally, there’s research showing that engaging in social information-seeking behaviors on Facebook (for instance, to learn more about people with whom the user has an offline connection) is related to increased social capital, while using Facebook to maintain close ties and to meet strangers without any previous offline connection is not (Ellison et al. 2011 and 2007).
Verdict: Strong Evidence. Previous research on the psychosocial correlates of Internet use shows that what you do online matters. Additionally, some of my newer data show that Facebook activities matter almost as much (and sometimes more) than time spent on Facebook when assessing outcomes. Therefore, a blanket statement that “using social media alone is lonely… get involved” is unwarranted.
As a psychologist, I have a lot of trouble considering levels/types of Internet use an “addiction.” Given the very large body of literature on the topic, I just don’t agree that what some call “Internet addiction” is equivalent to one of the other addictions found in the DSM-IV. 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. If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend this review paper.
Verdict: Weak Evidence. Stopping any routine is unsettling; stopping a routine that involves communicating with friends is even more so; however, that doesn’t define an addiction. This is an especially dangerous claim to make—again back to Popper: just because it’s a widely held view championed by the media, doesn’t mean it’s scientifically accurate.
Although the infographic only cited the papers by Gonzales and Hancock (2011) and Mehdizadeh (2010), there is certainly more evidence that Facebook use is related to personality factors such as self-esteem. For instance, Ross et al. (2009) used the NEO PI-R to evaluate personality differences and found that students higher on Extraversion were members of more Facebook groups and those higher on Neuroticism preferred using the Facebook wall feature. Furthermore, Ong et al. (2011) found that Extraverts (again measured using the NEO) engaged in greater self-presentation on Facebook and that scores on a Narcissism scale were positively related to frequency of posting status updates. Lastly, Wilson et al. (2010) found that students high on Extraversion and low on Conscientiousness spent more time on social networking websites.
Verdict: Moderate Evidence for personality variables in general. Weak Evidence for Narcissism. 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.
The same study that found that users of Facebook reported lower grades than nonusers also found differences in self-reported time spent studying between Facebook users and non-users. The most salient issue from that study was related to sampling– while they used a convenience sample of 209 students, only 67% reported they were Facebook users. The most recent comprehensive study by EDUCAUSE from a sample of 36,950 students from 126 U.S. universities and one Canadian university, showed that 90% of students used social networking websites and 97% of those said they used Facebook. Therefore, the generalizability of the results is called into question. Furthermore, I’ve got data from a paper that I currently have under review that show that there is no relationship between time spent on Facebook and time spent studying (N=2,359).
Verdict: Weak Evidence. Two studies exist—one with a small convenience sample, another with a large random sample showing contradictory results.
The answer to the question “do social media have a negative effect on education?” is more nuanced than the infographic would suggest. There is not a lot of research on the topic. What we do know from the current state of the research is that there are some circumstances where social media have a negative effect on education and student psychosocial development and there are other circumstances where the effect is positive. For instance, my latest data show that engaging uses of both Facebook and Twitter lead to increased academic and co-curricular engagement in the real world.
Final Verdict: We need more research to better evaluate the effects of social media on education, teaching, and student success. I suspect that in a few years, we’ll have more longitudinal and controlled published studies that will help us understand the ways we can support student social media use to maximize positive and minimize negative outcomes. While the infographic authors and I arrive at the same verdict, our data and analyses lead to different conclusions and viewpoints along the way. In summary, 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. To do otherwise does a disservice to the scientific process, to our students, and to the public at large.
A special thanks to Rebecca Petersen (Director, eLearning Resources, Lesley University, @rpetersmauri) for her feedback on a first draft of this post.
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