Does Facebook make you dumber?

So I awoke this morning to this story being plastered on the news feeds:

STUDY FINDS LINK BETWEEN FACEBOOK USE, LOWER GRADES IN COLLEGE

This is the original news release from Ohio State University.

I have found the tone of the various pick-ups by news organizations entertaining. From “Facebook use linked to less textbook time” on USA Today, to “What Facebook Users Share: Lower Grades” on Time/CNN and “Facebook Users Get Worse Grades in College” on Fox News.

Personally, I am pleased to see this research being done. As indicated by the researchers:

While this was a relatively small, exploratory study, it is one of the first to find a relationship between college students’ use of Facebook and their academic achievement.

However, this is only a start. It is a snapshot of 219 students at a point in their academic life.

Here are some quotes and my thoughts from the original release.

Students who spent more time working at paid jobs were less likely to use Facebook, while students who were more involved in extracurricular activities at school were more likely to use Facebook.

Science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and business majors were more likely to use Facebook than were students majoring in the humanities and social sciences.

“Other research had indicated that STEM majors spend more time on the Internet than do other students, so that may be one reason why they are more likely to use Facebook,” Karpinski said.

This does confirm what many have suspected. The first point emphasizes that if you have to work to support your education, you have less time for extra-curricular activities and thus, less time for Facebook. Further, research into relationship-builders and emotional intelligence indicate and allude to – those who actively participated in extra-curricular activities tended to be “networkers” and more outgoing in their business life.

STEM and business students also tend to have more regular assignments than those in humanities and social sciences where term papers and final exams are the norm. Thus, Facebook may provide a valuable form of communication for study groups and a suppot network for assignment help. (The study does not address if they get distracted trying to chat up someone attractive of having a gossip along the way.)

Karpinski emphasized that the results don’t necessarily mean that Facebook use leads to lower grades.

“There may be other factors involved, such as personality traits, that link Facebook use and lower grades,” she said.

“It may be that if it wasn’t for Facebook, some students would still find other ways to avoid studying, and would still get lower grades.  But perhaps the lower GPAs could actually be because students are spending too much time socializing online.”

Karpinski said it was significant that the link between lower grades and Facebook use was found even in graduate students.  She said that graduate students generally have GPAs above 3.5, so the fact that even they had lower grades when they used Facebook — and spent less time studying – was an amazing finding.

Or maybe they spent too much time participating in studies like this. 🙂

I agree with the authors as to the limitations of this study. This is where longitudinal research is valuable, and only then can we truly assess causality.

My question is: What were their grades at least one-year before joining Facebook?

There is a need for a benchmark grade. Have these always been “3.0 to 3.5” students? And have they measured a decline in a “4.0 student” dropping to a “3.0 student?” These are questions that need to be considered – ideally, Ohio State should follow a cohort all the way through their academic career to see if such finding hold up over time. As a point of comparison, it would be interesting to look at students’ grades from 1994 to 1998 to see if e-mail and the explosion of the Internet had any effect on GPAs in this era (barring an annoying trend in grade inflation, but that is another discussion).

The authors identify lower grades among grad students on Facebook as an “amazing finding.” I would venture that there is a lot going on here. Today, grad school is a substantial shift in time and effort commitment for students. There is also a greater onus on the individual. This can be challenging for a host of students – some of whom maybe over their head (at this point of their life) and others who have other intervening life circumstances.

Is Facebook that much of a distraction? Time will tell.

At this time, it is relatively new implement in the distraction arsenal of students (e.g., radio, television, movies, drinking, getting laid). All things need to be carefully considered and controlled for over time. Such is the rigor required to understand the impact of this phenomena on students’ grades.

An interesting counterpoint to this research was written by Chris Matyszczyk, at CNET in a piece “Facebook messes up your GPA:”

If the researchers had suggested that with every hour you spend on Facebook, your GPA sinks proportionately, then perhaps parents might be entitled to put controls on social networking and demand that their children get rid of their 5,000 closest chums.

But I have a suspicious and entirely unscientific feeling that all this research may tell us so far is that bookwormy, people-uncomfortable types do well in school tests.

From a business perspective: bang on, Chris. Business needs both types of people – the introspective, studious types as well as the outgoing, well-networked types.

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