Facebook use harms less able students’ grades, says study

Findings highlight need for ‘carefully considered’ use of platform as an educational tool

November 15, 2019
Source: Reuters
Straying off topic: using Facebook groups for general communication, ‘students easily get distracted’

Time spent on Facebook erodes the academic performance of “lower achieving” students, even when they use it specifically for educational purposes, a study says.

Australian researchers have found that three hours a day on the social networking site costs struggling students as much as 10 per cent of their exam marks. But the performance of higher academic achievers was “not significantly affected”, according to the report in Computers & Education.

Lead author James Wakefield said the results had important implications for the use of social networking as an educational tool. “I’ve heard a lot of lecturers and teachers say they create Facebook groups to get students to communicate,” said Dr Wakefield, a senior lecturer in accounting at the University of Technology Sydney.

“This research suggests that’s not a great idea.”

The study also involved University of Sydney lecturer Jessica Frawley, an expert in human-computer interactions. The pair surveyed more than 500 UTS undergraduates undertaking an introductory accounting subject mandated for business, law and engineering, among other degrees.

The study quizzed them on their use of Facebook and plotted the findings against the students’ weighted average marks across all their studies. The researchers controlled for other factors that might influence the results, including whether the participants planned to major in accounting.

The analysis found that total time spent on Facebook was related to “significantly lower performance”, but only among students with lower marks. Using the platform for study proved just as detrimental as communicating with friends, watching videos or “filling in ‘dead’ time”.

These negative impacts were confined to the “least difficult levels of learning”. Facebook use appeared to have little effect on more difficult accounting tasks, such as activity-based costing, suggesting that lower achievers performed “consistently poorly” in these areas even if they avoided Facebook entirely.

Previous research into the relationship between social networking and academic achievement has yielded mixed results. Some studies have found the sites to have positive impacts – attributed to better communication, collaboration and social interaction – while others concluded that the distraction of platforms such as Facebook detracted from performance.

Dr Wakefield said his study was the first to split the students according to their general aptitude, finding a “clear contrast between no effect for [those] that generally perform better and a negative effect for students who don’t perform as well”.

He said students who harnessed Facebook as an educational tool typically used it for “general communication reasons” such as discussing university work, asking questions and scheduling meetings for group projects.

“For the lower-performing students, those things are still negatively related to performance. If students are encouraged to use Facebook for their studies, it needs to be for specific uses [such as] data collection and analysis,” he said.

Dr Wakefield said that when students were encouraged to use Facebook groups for general communication, “they easily get distracted because the nature of the task is not very specific”.

The study unearthed massive variation in Facebook use, with some students using it for eight hours a day and 5 per cent completely eschewing it. The average was just under two hours a day.

Dr Wakefield said other popular social networking platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp were also likely to affect student performance. “But with those platforms, the scope is much more defined, so the outlet for distraction is more limited,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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