Facebook, college students, and lower grades

A pilot study at Ohio State University has found that Facebook users in college have lower grades and spend less time studying. I pieced together the following chart from the news release:


Aryn Karpinski, a co-author of the study and doctoral student in education at Ohio State University, said that:

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

The news release noted that:

Typically, Facebook users in the study had GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5, while non-users had GPAs between 3.5 and 4.0. In addition, users said they averaged one to five hours a week studying, while non-users studied 11 to 15 hours per week.

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.

My reaction when I started reading the news release was “They found some undergrads who aren’t using Facebook?” Then, sure enough, I found when I calculated the numbers that there were a mere 15 undergraduate non-Facebook users in the study.

I confess that I’m a little wary of some of Karpinski’s generalizations. Although she noted that other factors may be involved besides Facebook use or non-use, the ones that she hypothesized have to do with personality traits and/or predilection for online socialization.

Right now I’m not totally convinced that these findings don’t just represent the fact that about 80% of her non-Facebook users were graduate students. I think it’s safe to say that grad students generally spend more time studying than undergrads. Also, as she noted, grad students’ GPAs typically are higher.

In my mind, the overall generalizations from the study don’t seem to adequately recognize the extremely heavy skew in the non-Facebook group toward graduate students. If I saw that the data (to which she alluded) show that the lower grade trend for grad students was of equivalent size to the undergrad group, then I’d have more confidence in the overall generalizations that are being made in the news release.

Maybe Karpinski will find this post and share some more about her study. Clearly it’s a provocative topic and, if replicated at a larger scale, might provide some really useful information. While her data likely won’t curb Facebook use among college students, they might at least help us understand the potential impact of social networking on postsecondary academic achievement.

One final note: We all should look at – and think carefully about – any research findings that get reported out like this. We need to ask questions like Does this make gut-level sense? and Are the generalizations limited to the data or overbroad? and What more do I need to know to be confident in these findings?. Being informed consumers of research is critical if we are to make research- and/or data-driven decisions to benefit our students.

18 Responses to “Facebook, college students, and lower grades”

  1. See these links:


    Apparently my skepticism is shared by others. Karpinski is presenting her findings this week at AERA, the big annual educational research conference. I wonder if she was prepared for this kind of online ‘peer review’ that the Internet is providing her. I’ll send her the link to this post and see if she’ll share with us what she thinks about all of this…

  2. Thanks for the link. Interesting study. I found one statement somewhat entertaining, mildy irratating and really just plain sad. “Faculty members who allow students to use laptops in class have told her they often see students on the Facebook site during class.” Do you think college faculty will start to try and figure out how to leverage student interest in something like Facebook and use it to enhance the learning experience rather than just observe that students are on the site? Higher education in general is still so teacher-focused rather than student-centered and we’ve got to start changing that.

  3. In addition, according to the report:

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

    Is there a difference there that has to be accounted for? Do people doing STEM/business typically have lower averages than those majoring in the humanities and social sciences?

    Is there a link to age? Grad students are typically getting better grades, and are typically at least a few, possibly many, years older than undergrads. Does that higher mean age make them less likely to use FB and still keep that higher average grades effect, thus an easy and erroneous blame for FB usage on lower grades, when it’s simply the older students likely to get higher grades don’t use FB and so distort the conclusion.

    She doesn’t have a FB account herself, because she thinks FB is a huge distraction: no chance of an à priori conclusion then. And nothing like a well controlled test group in evidence either!

  4. “They found some undergrads who aren’t using Facebook?”

    I think this may be the same crowd that never takes time to play. Extremely focused, never goes exploring out of their comfort zone, on task all of the time…

    I probably wouldn’t do well comparing grades to that crowd either. I have had a couple of classes where I have learned a lot and not gotten the “A.” I am sure there are some people out there that would drop a class before taking a “B” as well. So is the GPA a really good indicator of learning?

  5. To echo Roger Whaley’s comment, I say “So what?” Many colleges are realizing that grades, both in high school and college are not good indicators of future success in much of anything but more school (see Tufts University’s revamping of their admissions process). To link Facebook use to grades is nice idea (even if this is a flawed study), but how about linking Facebook use to success and/or happiness in later life?

  6. If you look at this data with the preconceived notion that the use of Facebook is something seperate from learning, then you might assume it’s a distraction and has a negative impact on students’ academic performance.

    But what if the use of social, digital tools like Facebook (skills that are becoming essential in the 21C) were part of the learning process for students in schools — then maybe the Facebook users’ GPAs would be higher.

    Just hypothesizing here…

  7. What struck me, when I first heard about this study on the news last night, was the classic argument that correlation does not equal causation. As you say, there could be all sorts of reasons for the results, including the reason that seems most obvious to me: students who spend a lot of time doing things other than studying do not do as well as students who spend most of their time studying. Also, students who do very well in school are often less sociable in all senses (not just in terms of online socializing) than others, because they’d rather be studying than hanging out with others, in real time or online – nerds don’t have tons of friends to eat up their time. (Believe me, I know.) I haven’t looked at the study in detail, but on the surface, it seems sensationalist and not very meaningful.

  8. Much to be skeptical about, particularly given no correlation found in much larger samples:


  9. As several other commentors noted, there are way too many factors in student learning to pick out one particular item as the primary cause. Plus the fact that if Facebook didn’t exist, there would be something else used by some students to divert their attention from classes. It’s always been that way, probably always will be.

    However, I think a larger problem is the highly generalized headlines taken from a cursory reading of studies like this. Many people will see or hear the dozen or so words summarzing the “findings”. Some will read the whole article, fewer still will actually read and understand the details.

    Guess which part becomes the “truth”.

  10. Yeah, good work with the skepticism. Too small of a sample size and blaming FB rather than other factors or a combination of factors is ridiculous. As for the comment that college professor see students on FB in class, I would say, so? If they banned laptops, that doesn’t automatically translate into in-class attention. That student staring at you could be making a grocery list in her head or thinking about the witty remarks she’ll Twitter later. You can’t control people’s attention ever second. Nancie Atwell wrote about a writing student that would doodle all during writing time, but would turn in great pieces at the end of the week. She wanted to bust him for wasting time, but couldn’t because his work was fine. Finally, after a conference with him, she realized the doodling was his brainstorming time and part of his process. You just never know.

  11. That’s odd. I just read an article about a study that showed people who frequently accessed Facebook and YouTube at work were more productive than those who didn’t. Thinks that make you go hmm… see: http://preview.tinyurl.com/cv6ghf

  12. I would simply point to what is now valued in our current economic situation. Communication skills are what are most sought after today. I think that if you were to actually look at the networking which is happening on Facebook, you would be hard pressed to convince me that despite the higher GPAs of the non-users, those who are non-users will be anymore successful than those who are using technology to network and build connections.
    We continue to comment upon and look for support for our assumptions that just because young people communicate differently than we immigrants that they are communicating in a less effective manner and lack communication skills.
    Different does not mean less effective. I have read time and again how direct face to face conversation will suffer due to technology. If communication is dependent upon technology in the future, I would argue we all should be encouraging our children to text, blog, twitter, and begin learning how to network productively in the Facebook world.
    I have found opportunities to communicate with other educators I would have never met by contributing to this Blog. I communicate to a great many of my collegues via e-mail due to schedule issues which prohibit a face to face meeting or even a phone call. I am still able to communicate effectively in a face to face conversation.
    The aquisition of one skill should not be blamed for the decline of another.

  13. Aryn is actually a friend of mine. She responded to another blogger in response to the overwhelming amount of attention being placed on the study. In the response, she mentioned that this topic is really a small sidebranch of her dissertation research and admits that it was a small sample size. She also discussed how the media has taken the conclusions she has drawn in her research and generalized them to a point that no literate human being would be stupid enough to accept (my words, not hers).

  14. If the media is the one reporting that a sample size of 219 students in Ohio is enough to say that the 200 million people on FB are getting dumber, then yeah, they’ve “taken the conclusions she has drawn in her research and generalized them to a point that no literate human being would be stupid enough to accept”.

    If she’s actually said this in her research, than she’s “taken the conclusions she has drawn in her research and generalized them to a point that no literate human being would be stupid enough to accept”.

  15. It may be important to remember that FB can be a tool, a distraction, an obsession, or other classification based on the interest, service, and personality of the individual. It is what it is to each person. Also, just by the fact we are gathering here digitally may predispose many of DI’s bloggers to have a favorable FB bias in contrast to Eloise’s reference to Aryn Karpinski not maintaining one.

  16. FYI, I’ve heard from the author of the study and encouraged her to publish her remarks here. Hopefully she will…

    Here’s the TIME article on the study:


  17. Hello All! Dr. Mcleod contacted me and said it would be a good idea for me to post the e-mail I sent to him about the study on his blog. The message is below, with some additional thoughts. The poster session went well today. I was afraid that the media would be there with tomatoes, but thankfully they were not.

    Dr. McLeod,

    Thank you for blogging and piecing together things about the study. Yes, the media have left out some details. But, as you guessed, this is a REALLY basic study. I just planned to do this for the conference to get some ideas and network with more experienced and qualified researchers in this area. I really wanted to have a dialogue with others who are looking into similar phenomena. I spoke with one reporter over in the UK (Sunday London Times) about my poster and then it just ballooned after that. They completely sensationalized it, as you know. I have never dealt with the media, and did not anticipate this. I obviously know better now!

    I did a little more explaining below about some things I did in the study. In a nutshell, the main purpose of my study was to EXPLORE (pilot study!) the demographic composition of a Facebook user at the college level. I also wanted to investigate academic achievement in relation to Facebook use. The demographic details were not the focus of the media’s attention, as you know. For the academic performance variables, I did a MANOVA with Facebook and Student Status (i.e., Undergraduate vs. Graduate) as the factors, and GPA and Hours Spent Studying as the dependent variables. I found that there was not a significant interaction between FB use and student status. This was important to rule out as a confound. As you know, graduate GPAs are typically inflated meaning that it is rare to see a graduate GPA less than 3.5. It was found that there were significant differences between users and nonusers in that users had GPAs in the 3.0 – 3.5 range and also studied in the 1 to 5 hour range per week. Nonusers had GPAs in the 3.5 – 4.0 range and studied 11 to 15 hours per week. These differences were also significant in each individual population (i.e., in the separate undergraduate and graduate populations; p < .001 for the combined sample and p < .025, .01, and .001 for the separate undergraduate and graduate groups for the DVs). This is an interesting finding because graduate GPAs rarely are that low (this part was not in my poster as well, but probably should have been!). The main thing to remember is that this research is correlational, which the media does not seem to understand. I have pushed the correlation versus causation aspect in all my interviews, and most media sources seem to get that in the article somewhere (at least lately). I am not saying that Facebook CAUSES poor academic performance. I am saying that the research shows that there is a RELATIONSHIP between Facebook use and academic performance. There are a host of third variables that need to be examined that are potentially influencing this relationship such as personality, work, extracurricular involvement, other distractions, etc. Also, I'm sure that if it wasn't Facebook it would be another distraction. Conceivably, anything that takes away from study time may be correlated with GPA. Also, just because a correlation was found, does not mean we know anything specific. For example, anyone could easily argue that the latter predicts the former not the other way around (i.e., those who tend to get worse grades end up spending more time on Facebook). I am fully aware of the limitations of my study, and merely want people, personnel at universities, researchers, parents, and students to think about this intricate relationship (and start a dialogue!). Also, I DO think this is a GREAT example of explaining correlation versus causation. I am a TA myself and plan to use this study as a case example (why not?). I initially wanted to just gather some information about the topic, since this is not my specialization or even my dissertation topic. I thought a pilot study format/exploratory survey would be the best option. I created a 6 page survey for students (and faculty) to complete. The surveys were slightly different for the students and faculty (e.g., GPA obviously was not a question on the faculty survey). I had many open-ended questions on the survey, and it took a while to complete. Thus, I am quite proud of my 219-student sample and the other 100 + faculty and staff surveys that I have yet to analyze. I know it's not a large sample, but I did not have research assistants or undergrads helping me. I physically collected all the data myself. Also, this study was not funded (obviously). Some other critics were asking, "Who would fund this?" Well, no one. So no worries there. I chose the traditional paper and pencil format to increase the response rate (i.e., me personally recruiting students from classes and waiting patiently for them to finish the survey). I used Likert scaling for some information to decrease the potential for missing data. I read some research out there that states if you leave "blanks," there is a higher chance of missing data. So, for this FIRST exploratory venture, I used this format. I know that categorical/ordinal data are more difficult to work with, but I weighed the pros and cons and that was the decision that I made. I would love to do more sophisticated analyses (e.g., multiple regression comes to mind) where it is easier to control for other variables or examine models. However, there are problems, as you know, in doing that with the types of data that I have. Plus, I think it would be virtually impossible to control for/examine the myriad of variables that are a part of this huge, intricate network of related concepts. This is a very difficult area to research (i.e., social networking sites), and I can see how researchers and professors may dedicate their lives to examining phenomena this like. I have not even looked at the rest of my data, which I think will be the more interesting information. I have a huge amount of qualitative data to examine from the open-ended questions. I know open-ended questions are not considered qualitative data by some researchers, but I am referring to it that way for now. I have faculty and staff surveys that need to be examined. I took a peek at their responses and saw some interesting things compared to the student responses. I do not intend to submit what I have for publication as is. I definitely need to add some more things to it or even take a completely new angle! Probably the latter! My study is easy to rip apart statistically and methodologically, obviously. But know that I am fully aware of what the problems are! I acknowledge the limitations of doing this research (especially survey research). I think the really interesting information will come from the open-ended responses, which I did not have time to analyze for the poster. And I DO think if I put anything out there (publication-wise), I will include that information. I'm not a qualitative person, but I'll find someone to help me examine it. Please know that I know there are many other people more qualified to speak on this topic, who have dedicated their lives to this research. I know this. I am learning along with everyone else. Thanks and please contact me if you want to chat more about this or give me pearls of wisdom. I appreciate any advice. Thanks! -Aryn

  18. Great to see you respond on Scott’s blog, Aryn! I’ve was looking forward to more information, and I really appreciate the time you took to explain the nature of your study. Congratulations on starting a great discussion.

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