time.com goes after facebook

A new study tried to link Facebook use to a decline in academic performance and Time goes overboard with its conclusions.
facebook screen time

Time.com columnist Anita Hamilton doesn’t seem to like Facebook very much. She’s got catchy quotes and statistics that paint the social networking site’s users in a very bad light and she’s not afraid to misuse them to make her point. If we take her latest article at face value, we’d have to seriously consider declaring social networking sites a menace to society and ban anyone under the age of 25 from using them. But of course, with the web at our disposal, we can double check her data and come up with our own conclusions.

The basis of her article is an OSU study of 219 students which found a link between Facebook usage and GPA. Students who used the social networking site tended to have a GPA between 3.0 and 3.5 while those who didn’t, usually had between a 3.5 and a 4.0 on their report cards. Facebook users studied between one to five hours per week on average while non-users logged in between 11 and 15 hours of study time. While there’s definitely a strong correlation, the authors point out that it doesn’t equal causation. Rather, it’s more likely that Facebook users with lower grades would find other ways to avoid studying.

In her write-up, Hamilton glosses over this important point and goes on to say that this study is not the first one to “associate Facebook usage with diminished mental abilities.” Diminished mental abilities? Ouch! That’s actually pretty insulting and grossly erroneous considering that the study she’s using to make this insult has nothing to say about mental ability. If a group of Facebook users consistently scored lower on an IQ test than non-users, she might have some leg to stand on but a GPA is also measure of a student’s discipline and study skills. If a user is distracted with social networking, it doesn’t mean that he or she is feeble minded. He or she is probably just not doing a very good job of balancing academics and social life.

There could also be many other factors involved in why a student’s GPA is the way it is. Maybe the classes are tough. Maybe the professors grade harshly. Maybe there are other distractions unrelated to the web, like drama with a significant other or family troubles. A simple survey of users vs. non-users doesn’t control for these possibilities which is why there are experts who consider most studies on online usage inherently flawed. Hamilton makes a quick note of their opinions and briefly documents Facebook’s response before going on to rehash all the typical complaints about college students spending way too much time on the site and posting quick updates to their profiles instead of paying attention to lectures.

But some of the most controversial evidence used by Hamilton to support her idea of social networking users being distracted slackers are quotes from Susan Greenfield and Gary Small, a duo of neuroscientists known for making rather wild claims about how our brains interact with technology. Greenfield made a statement in the UK’s House of Lords that using social networking sites was “infantilizing the brain,” an assertion that was received with raised brows and criticism. In fact, one of England’s best known scientific skeptics, Dr. Ben Goldacre, called it a case of using one’s position “to give undue weight to opinion and conjecture.” And as for Small’s statement that prolonged online usage would leave “young people unable to understand the context of subtle gestures and the emotions behind them,” he’s trying to sell a book on how to survive in the digital world with your brain intact and this quote is part of his pitch.

Now interestingly enough, Hamilton tries to present these statements as actual studies rather than the opinions and assertions they actually are, once again misusing information to build a framework for what clearly seems to be her personal view of social networking sites and many of the people who use them. If this isn’t a textbook example of technophobia, I wouldn’t know what is. And the most irritating thing about it is the blatant misuse of anything that sounds somewhat scientific to present this technophobic opinion as fact.

# tech // facebook / punditry / research / social networking

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