Comment »Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 10:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

Last month it was widely reported that a study had found Facebook users have lower grades. At the time I had my doubts about some of the conclusions newspapers were drawing. Now a new study criticises the original, and finds no link between Facebook and grades.

The authors were unhappy that although the previous study, which they refer to as “FG”, only looked at simple correlation, ‘Facebook harms grades’ became an established fact as it disseminated through the media. They found 500 references to this in three day span, despite the “unpublished and inadequately reviewed” FG study being merely reported in a press release.

It’s not just the media at fault though. They say the FG study used a sample of convenience which did not adequately reflect the population it sought to examine. It was heavily weighted to graduate students with only six first- and second-years, making it “unrepresentative of any university population at all”. Other aspects of the FG study, such as a lack of control for demographic variables, also come under fire.

Not content with mere criticism, the paper also describes a new study lead by Josh Pasek, a Ph.D. candidate in political communication at Stanford University. The researchers looked at three groups of students. One consisted of 1,060 first-years at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), whilst two others were drawn from a larger study, the annual National Annenberg Survey of Youth (NASY), for another 1,250 participants.

In all three groups there was no negative link found between grade point averages (the typical US measure of academic performance) and Facebook use. Results were mixed, either showing no correlation or a small positive one – Facebook users were more likely to have slightly higher grades. This increase was not statistically significant however when limiting the sample to just university students, as the previous FG study did.

The researchers are quick to point out that their results should not be used as a definitive answer to the question of Facebook’s effect on grades. They warn that since Facebook only emerged in 2004 it could be too early to tell, and predictions are difficult because of our “constantly evolving media environment”. They also point out that excessive participation in any activity, be it browsing Facebook or otherwise, will have an “extreme time replacement effect”. As I said in my post on the FG study, procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can.

Interestingly, published alongside the paper in online journal First Monday is a response from the author of the FG study, Aryn Karpinski of Ohio State University. She defends her study as “merely planned…for a conference”, and makes the fair point that she was a victim of media sensationalism.

Karpinski in turn criticises the new study’s methods, particularly their choice of samples. She argues that the UIC sample of first-years is not representative of the country as a whole, and the NASY survey is invalid as it only had a 45% response rate. It could be that those who didn’t respond are negatively impacted by Facebook use. The statistical methods used in the study are also attacked.

It doesn’t end there. In the same issue of First Monday Pasek et al respond to Karpinski’s response to their study, which was in turn a response to her original study. Perhaps it would have been easier simply to have the discussion on their Facebook wall-to-wall. They defend themselves of course, and ultimately “look forward to a continued rigorous academic dialogue on these issues”. Quite.

Josh Pasek, Eian More, & Eszter Hargittai (2009). Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data First Monday, 14 (5)

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