Facebook Can Provide a Positive Influence for College Students
June 7th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
There is no question that Facebook dominates the social media landscape now and a majority of college students maintain active profiles. Many educators frown upon the use of Facebook by students, especially when accessed during class time, because it can be distracting and addictive. But there is also research available that is in favor of Facebook because it may have a positive influence on students who are in need of a support system. Students will find it helpful to learn about the potential benefits that are possible by having a controlled presence on Facebook and how they can maintain a balance necessary to avoid potential problems such as addiction and overuse.
An Important Benefit of Facebook
Starting a new degree program can be intimidating. You are put into a new environment and surrounded by people you have likely never met before. Add to that the stress of trying to navigate through the school policies, the course materials, and class requirements – and this time can be extremely challenging. How can Facebook help you? It can provide you with something familiar such as friends, family, and others who may offer support. The article Does Facebook Help Students Adapt to College? discussed psychological research that confirmed the support students are likely to receive while they are in college. Dr. Chris Stiff of Keele University (UK) conducted a study about undergraduate students’ use of Facebook and found that “students who interacted more on Facebook in their first semester reported being happier and less stressed and had higher self-esteem” than students who were not actively involved with Facebook.
I’ve found that all students need support throughout their coursework as there are times when they have questions, concerns, and doubts. I will be the first to admit that I have not always recommended Facebook first and instead, I have suggested that students develop connections with other classmates as they find similar academic and career interests. However, until students develop that type of support, which takes time to cultivate, it would be helpful to have friends who are immediately available to talk to. The question that students often ask is about the number of friends they need to create an effective network.
How Many Friends Do You Need?
I know that from talking to my students about social media, specifically the use of Facebook, there are some who actively send friend requests every week (sometimes daily) and seem to be on a “friends conquest” mission. One student told me they have over 1,000 friends and I asked this student to estimate the number of those friends that they actually knew. After they reviewed their friends list, the answer I received was less than 200. What was important to this student was the number of the friends that were listed on their profile, as it seemed to be a status symbol (perceptual in nature) to them. Some students post updates daily and others share status updates on an hourly basis.
In the humorous Chronicle of Higher Education blog post, Why It’s Good to Have 400 Fake Friends, the author Tom Bartlett talked about the perception of having a readily available online audience and “there’s been a noted uptick in narcissism among college students over the last decade, which could have something to do with the notion that hundreds of people are waiting breathlessly to hear what’s up.” The post also mentioned a study about students’ Facebook habits (number of friends, frequency of wall posts, etc.) and measured their feeling of satisfaction about their life. Even though most of the friends were superficial relationships, the results concluded that “students who had more friends on Facebook were more satisfied.” The mean number of friends that participants (college students) had was 440.
Bartlett’s post also referred to the work of Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University and author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need? In the article, Robin Dunbar: we can only ever have 150 friends at most…, he discussed the need for development of a true social circle and the number he provided (150) is all that our brain can actually process. Dunbar states that “this is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there's some personal history, not just names and faces.” From an anthropological perspective, 150 was the community size of a typical hunter-gatherer society so it seems that this is an inherent societal quality.
A Need for Social Media Balance
Before you log onto Facebook again and start checking for status updates, develop a strategy to balance your time and activities. In the article, The Effects of Social Media on College Students, researchers at Johnson and Wales University addressed social media use by college students and the benefits of having friends. Their research concluded that because of the potential negative impact on performance and grades, “an approach is needed to better balance the relationship between social media and academic study.” This aligns with other studies about social media use that concluded, “college students who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period achieved lower grades.” It is a matter of losing focus and becoming distracted, which can lead to other problems.
Students who are ready to engage in social media while studying often find they are not fully focused on one task. In the article, Studies on Multitasking Highlight Value of Self-Control, the use of technology and social media by students was highlighted and it was noted that when students “pay continuous partial attention to everything, it has resulted in their having difficulty concentrating deeply on anything.” It can become a problem when students are trying to study and need their concentration to fully process and interpret the meaning of what they are reading.
Even students taking an online class may be affected by overuse of social media websites. In my post, Are Online Students Addicted to Technology?, I discussed the issue of students who are actively checking Facebook for status updates and how this may influence their view of the classroom. For example, if they are constantly checking the discussion board for new responses (updates) and there isn’t anything new to read or review, it is possible that they may lose interest in the class. The negative effects are not limited to just online students though.
In Social Networking’s Good and Bad Impacts on Kids, educator Dr. Larry D. Rosen discussed studies that found “adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania and aggressive tendencies.” This again confirms the importance of maintaining a controlled presence for students who are actively monitoring and posting on Facebook. Develop a strategy that allocates a specific amount of time and defines the purpose for being logged on. If you monitor your time and usage, and discover that there are no real benefits for being actively engaged in the site, perhaps you need to devote less time to the website and more time to your studies.
Facebook can have a positive influence on college students if they are using it as a source of academic support. However, development of an effective strategy is not about the number of friends you add but the quality of support you receive. In addition, getting help from your friends or support group involves more than posting a status update and announcing what you are doing at the moment. It’s about finding someone to relate to who understands your academic journey and can offer you meaningful advice.