Seemingly every month a new study emerges claiming that social networking is bad for us or our children. Rather unsurprisingly, given the perpetual desire of some parts of the media to demonise technology, results from contradictory studies don’t make headline news. And that’s a real shame. The internet provides us with a new and unique environment in which to interact, engage, learn and relate; this is complex and there is still much to learn.
Earlier this month we were rather unreliably informed that Facebook fans do worse in exams. Research finds the website is damaging students’ academic performance (Times, April 12, 2009). The coverage was woefully misleading and it takes very little scrutiny to see that the study these headlines refer to actually shows nothing of the sort.
In fact, the researchers themselves were quick to point out that the findings do not show a causal link between Facebook use and lower school grades (a classic case of correlation not causation).
However, what grieves me most is that it doesn’t really tell us anything interesting or useful at all. It’s clear to anyone who reads the study that it was only ever designed to provide a comparison between graduate and undergraduate Facebook users and non-users demographically and academically.
A similar study could compare students who are heavy offline socialisers, who watch TV excessively or who play sport at a high level with those who don’t and one could hypothesise that the results would be similar.
Contrary to popular opinion, there is little if any empirical evidence that using a social network site has a negative psychological impact on users. Indeed, a study by Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe at Michigan State University found that using a site such as Facebook could have a beneficial impact on psychological well-being. They concluded: ‘Online interactions do not necessarily remove people from their offline world but may indeed be used to support relationships and keep people in contact, even when life changes move them away from each other.’
Furthermore Facebook may also provide greater benefits for users experiencing low self-esteem and low life satisfaction, results which are supported by more recent research conducted by Lindsey Carlson at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota. Sadly, it is the negative story that made the headlines because it fits the agenda that parts of the media want to promote.
It’s easier to jump on the ‘Facebook is bad’ bandwagon without any real appreciation for how research could better understand a question as complex as, ‘how and in what ways are social network sites impacting upon other areas of users lives?’
Research that is superficial and doesn’t fully appreciate the subject it tries to understand or fails to explore an issue comprehensively is, in my mind, an opportunity wasted and yet another opportunity for parts of the media to peddle their crowd-pleasing, anti-technology propaganda.
Given the complexity of the internet, the way in which we use it, adopt it, adapt it and integrate it into our lives, research which truly tries to understand how we are changing as a consequence needs to be innovative, intelligent and robust. Otherwise how will we ever really comprehend the immense and exciting changes and challenges that are afoot?