My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data”

In mid-April, journalists heard about a student poster at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting called “A Description of Facebook Use and Academic Performance Among Undergraduate and Graduate Students.” The poster suggested that Facebook use might be related to lower academic achievement in college and graduate school. As the media picked this up (most likely without reading more than the abstract), a new story emerged: Facebook is the cause of poor grades in school. Unhappy with what was panning out, Eszter Hargittai penned a blog post at Crooked Timber to critique the situation: “ZOMG! Facebook use and student grades.”

Move forward a few weeks… Josh Pasek, eian more, and Eszter Hargittai just published an article at First Monday on this issue: “Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data.” In this article, they examine three different datasets that contradict the claims made by the AERA poster and concluded that the AERA findings could not be reproduced.

Indeed, if anything, Facebook use is more common among individuals with higher grades. We also examined how changes in academic performance in the nationally representative sample related to Facebook use and found that Facebook users were no different from non-users.

The samples used in this First Monday article include a large sample of undergraduates at a diverse undergraduate institution, a nationally representative cross sectional sample of American youth, and a longitudinal panel of American youth. There are also scholars elsewhere that have data that contradict the AERA poster’s claims. Quoting from an email from Sam Gosling (a professor of psych at UT-Austin):

I teach a big intro psych class every year and my co-teacher and I always do a bunch of surveys, questionnaires, etc. and ask the class various questions….in 2007 we asked the class how often they check FB…the options were “never’ “less than once a week” “once a day” 2-5 times a day” and “6 or more times a day”….I knew we had that so I ran a quick correlation between that variable and the overall class score….the correlation was .12, which was not statistically significant, but is in the direction of showing the people who check their FB more often got higher grades…note that was computed over only 149 onlyf the students…I probably do have data on a larger number but that was what matched up in my hasty data merge to see what we’d find.

Given the way that these things typically turn out, I doubt that many journalists will be clamoring to scream, “We were wrong! Facebook doesn’t cause bad grades!” This is a sad reality of media sensationalism. Unfortunately for all of us, when scholars (or students) disseminate findings based on poor methodology that reinforce myths that the media wants to propagate, they get picked up even if they are patently untrue and can be disproved through multiple alternative data sets. Even though I doubt this article will make it into mainstream media, I hope that some of you will take the time to make it clear to those around you that the media coverage of this story was patently ridiculous and unfounded. Or at least start by reading the article: “Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data.”

Note: The author of the AERA poster, Aryn Karpinski, also published a commentary in First Monday this month: “A response to reconciling a media sensation with data” where she makes it clear that her study was exploratory and that she wanted to place it at AERA to start a conversation with scholars, not to attract media en masse. She then continues on to critique the critique of her work.

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12 comments to “Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data”

  • I was not following that story (about FB and low grades), but I applaud the First Monday authors and yourself for following up with these articles! The sensationalism in mainstream media goes beyond just the social networking and pop technology domains — I took a whole class on this around neuroscience and biopsych literatures too.

  • Great post. Unfortunately, I think you’re right about the media. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the “we were wrong” articles to start popping up. But it is the responsibility of level-headed academic technologists and researchers to question and reexamine conclusions such as those reported in the original FB-grade correlation stories.

    When I first saw the story, I thought we’d be likely to find a negative correlation between any excessive behavior (e.g., playing video games several hours a day) and grades. I’m somewhat heartened to see at least some tentative data suggesting that there might actually be a positive correlation between social networking and performance. (There has to be, of course, some point at which too much time on FB would crowd out reading / studying time and therefore negatively impact academic performance.)

  • Thanks, danah, for posting about this.

    Jon, I just wanted to clarify that all of the analyses reported in these studies look at the difference between those who use Facebook at all versus those who do not. These analyses have not considered the implications of different amounts or different types of Facebook use. Those would be interesting areas for exploration.

  • A Sun-Sentinel education reporter recently visited one of my classes to talk to the kids about their use of technology. He only used a few quotes from a 90 minute interview, but it was an eye-opener for me.

    The class I let him talk to was my most articulate, but I had no idea they had thought long (and well) about incorporating Facebook, Twitter, blogging and texting in varying proportions according to their needs. I think they all have MySpace pages but abandoned them to some extent since middle school. Music brings them back there.

    I feel that we may be looking at cases of successful adaptation rather than good grades versus bad grades. S Korean studies on obsessive behaviour may be an important tool.

    I wonder if putting them into some kind of x dimensional vector map like Mail’s spam filter would be useful.

  • Suzanne Aurilio

    I agree with Brynn, thanks for taking the time to challenge the discursive aerobics of the media. My institution’s PR folks contacted me about talking to WSJ on that article, during AERA here in San Diego. Down the food chain a few notches, I just paraphrased my colleague’s refusal to comment without having more time to investigate the article and the discourse around it.
    Eep….:)

  • James Pustejovsky

    Huh. Just looked at the First Monday article and the response. It’s cool that Pasek, more, & Hargittai put in the effort and thought to provide more evidence about this question. However, I think their message could use some more tweaking. Their simple regression analysis hasn’t shown that Facebook use and GPA are “likely unrelated,” rather just demonstrated that there doesn’t appear to be any strong (linear) correlation in the populations represented by the studies they used.

    They should also provide confidence bounds for their estimates. Why brag about having probability samples (in two out of three-it sounds like the UIC study isn’t actually a “representative” probability sample), if don’t put them to use?

  • Coincidental or causal relationship? i think probably the former, though it’s interesting to speculate.

  • To Ezter Hargittai: Thank you for the rapid follow-up study of the AERA Facebook-GPA presentation. And thanks to Zephoria for highlighting it. Having gone through the ringer as a Ph.D student, it aggravates me that most media and their readers don’t understand basic research -but I am not surprised given the state of teaching critical thinking skills to the masses.

    Anyhow, back in April, I communicated to parents that the Karpinsky’s study was only exploratory in nature. I found myself writing a piece on correlation and how, we can’t make any conclusions on causal effect (even with these follow-up studies. It will be a while longer before any conclusions can be made. I wrote more about this here:

    http://www.examiner.com/x-5337-LA-Learning-Success-Examiner~y2009m4d18-Facebook-does-not-cause-lower-GPAs

    for those interested.

    I could not find Aryn Karpinsky’s response to the FM article. Is there another link for her response. I also was in communication with her during the conference and I (probably the only one at the time) actually read over her poster before publishing my article. If you could send me a link to her repsonse, that would be greatly appreciated. I hope to attach FM study to my April article.

    Thanks so much. Grace

  • Grace, thanks for your note and glad to hear that you took a careful look at the study as well.

    Aryn Karpinski’s response is here:
    http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2503/2183

    Our response to her response is here:
    http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2504/2187

  • Steve

    I am unclear as how the issue here is being framed. Does Facebook cause lower/higher grades? Lower or higheer than what?

    Than “non-facebook users”? But what does that really mean? People who prefer other social media over facebook? People who never or rarely use social media at all?

    I’m sensing a bit of conceptual slop in the way the issue is being framed. The sensible question would seem to be whether grades are correlated with degree of use of social media, and whether this effect differs based on the medium or media of choice. Framing it that way, it makes sense to investigate. The idea of “the effect of Facebook on grades” strikes me as one of those psuedo-notions that appears to mean something – until one thinks it through and discovers it means little or nothing.

    One possible reason for a correlation of Facebook use with higher grades could be that Facebook users are known to be (to use a bit of teen slang ca 2004) “prep”. I.e. Academically skilled and conventionally achievement-oriented. Would it suprise anybody that preps get better grades than (say) gamers? But that would hardly be an effect of the Facebook medium on grades. Rather the better grades and the media choice would have a common cause in the subject’s personality and subcultural orientation.

    These researchers need to be more clear about what questions they are asking before their results will be a useful contribution to the dialogue.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Supreme court a middle school student posted comments on his personal face book page about the teacher at his school these comments were mean spirited and contained statements that were false . these statements if true could get the teacher fired the principal heard about and saw the comments ?

  • Hanneke Mertens

    Hi,

    I ve read your blog “is facebook for old people” and think you like the following video on YouTube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LpaIXTKNuU

    It is a vlog from Nerimon explaining why he hates Facebook and describing how all of his friends delete their myspace account and create a facebook one instead. (He has a facebook account himself btw)

    Greetings,

    Hanneke Mertens

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