Is it time to switch off Facebook?

Tue, Apr 3, 2012, 01:00

Studies show students are spending between six and 10 hours per week on Facebook. Is the social networking site now the biggest-ever threat to study habits?

THERE’S A battle going on in Irish homes and schools around the country as parents and teachers take on a time vampire with tools that will never work. Like rain through a leaky extension Facebook is getting in through the phone, the iPad, the desktop and the Wii.

Increasing use of iPads in classrooms means that students can update their Facebook status while they’re supposed to be reading textbooks.

Then they go home and spend an hour or more social networking or worse; checking-in compulsively all through a study period, and never staying on task for more than a few minutes at a time.

Parents and teachers have a right to be worried: a UPC survey conducted last year found that students were spending between six and 10 hours on the site each week. One mother described physically padlocking the broadband router to stop her daughter going online while she was supposed to be studying. Meanwhile her daughter was probably searching for proxies to get past the firewall on her school iTouch.

Same planet, different worlds.

The notion that parents will solve the Facebook problem is fanciful: students alone must take control. And they are.

Richard Whelan had serious problems staying off Facebook when he did his Leaving Cert. When he got to college he realised just how many students around him were having the same trouble. As part of his undergraduate commerce degree, he conducted research among 1,000 secondary and third-level students to assess the amount of time they were spending on the social networking site and how it might be affecting their study habits. He was surprised at the results.

“I thought I was bad until we did this research,” says Whelan. “The average amount of time people were spending on Facebook, as a percentage of overall time spent on the computer, was 79 per cent. For many it was higher. We were surprised that such a small amount of screen time was actually being used for anything related to study.”

Whelan spoke to parents to get their attitudes to their children’s social networking habits. “The overall impression we got was that parents were afraid of the technology. They wanted to have some control over their children’s use of social networking but didn’t know how. They didn’t want to ban them from the site completely but they did worry about how it was impacting on their study time.”

The trouble for many parents is that they want to balance the priorities of study and social life for teens. Websites like Facebook are the modern equivalent of a phone chat or meeting up in the park – a chance for students to let off steam and stay in touch with the world beyond study.

“It’s a huge part of life for teenagers now,” says Jackie O’Callaghan of the National Parents Council Post Primary. “You have to go with the flow to some extent. I’m on Facebook myself and it’s a fantastic tool.”

However, even Jackie admits that when she goes onto the site she is sometimes surprised to see how often some of her sons’ school friends are checking in, and at what times.

“I am friends with my son on Facebook and sometimes I see that his friends have come online in the small hours of the morning.”

Jackie does not recommend spying on children on Facebook but, by becoming a member herself, she is at least able to talk to them with some authority about their social networking habits.

“I advise my son to make Facebook dates – agree a time that they all go on and don’t check it before then. I would never stop him from using it altogether because I see how important social networking is to my older daughter in college. It’s a great academic resource for her.”

Whelan took the research available to him and began to develop software that would allow parents and students to close Facebook down for periods of the day. The result was StudyBuddy, a desktop application that blocks designated websites during critical study time (

StudyBuddy has since been taken on as an accelerated programme in the National Digital Research Centre in Dublin’s Digital Hub. Since joining the NDRC, Whelan and his co-developers, Declan Egan, Kevin Glynn, and Gavin Hayes, have carried out further research and developed a new approach to social networking management.

What they have found is that there is little point in trying to pull students off Facebook altogether and in fact, what is required is a new way of looking at social networking and its relationship to study.

“Students need to be supported in managing their own usage and getting the best from it.”

Whelan and Egan are now developing a new application that will reward students for time spent in productive activity online. This could be in websites directly linked to study or for using Facebook for constructive academic activities like discussing coursework or sharing resources. The new application is called Popdeem.

Whelan and Egan are not the only Irish students looking at the problem creatively. Neil Buckley is working alongside them in the NDRC on a project called Slate State. It is estimated that by September, 10 per cent of all first-year students in the country will be using iPads in school. The problems that parents face at home are about to be imported into the classroom.

“It’s very easy to leave the application you’re supposed to be in while in class,” says Neil. “How can a teacher tell if the student is reading his geography book or checking Facebook?”

Buckley, along with his partner Rodhán Hickey, is developing a “dashboard” for teachers to help them keep an eye on what each student is doing while on the iPad. “This is the equivalent of reading a comic behind the schoolbook. Teachers we work with are telling us that while they are comfortable with textbooks they need to get comfortable with iPads. Once they do, it’s not just a question of catching students playing Angry Birds when they are supposed to be answering maths questions. Teachers can use the information positively, to keep track of how students are progressing through material and to help them.”

Now that schoolwork, homework and study are all moving onto digital platforms, these young researchers are all coming to the same conclusion. The war against Facebook is lost. It’s time to move on to the business of finding balance in the new learning landscape.


A first-year college student, a Leaving Cert student and a Junior Cert student discuss their Facebook habits


Leaving Cert 2011, Wesley College, Dublin

Number of Facebook friends:528

Hours a day spent on Facebook (in sixth year):Four plus . I spend about six-seven hours a day on a device of some kind. About 30 per cent that is study.

Did you ever use Facebook for study-related purposes?On rare occasions. If I had trouble with something I was studying, it was a handy way of asking some people from my class. But most of the time no, it was purely for sociable reasons.

Do you think Facebook had a negative impact on your study habits?Definitely.

Biggest attraction of Facebook:Social aspect, easy access to friends, photos and games.

Biggest distraction of Facebook:A lot of time spent chatting to friends or just aimlessly rummaging through people’s pages and photos

Any advice for students doing the Leaving this year?If you have enough will power, delete your account or just temporarily block it. Or do what I eventually did and get an application like StudyBuddy that allows you to block Facebook by time. It was a great help for me as my will power wasn’t strong enough to delete or block my account.


Leaving Cert 2012, Loreto, Wexford

Number of Facebook friends:More than 500

Hours a day spent on Facebook:Two hours between Twitter and Facebook. I have an iPhone which means the internet is just so available. We spend break-time and lunchtime online discussing who’s in a relationship on Facebook and stuff like that. Our conversations would generally revolve around what’s going on on Twitter or YouTube or Facebook. The internet has totally taken over from television. All-in-all I’d probably spend about four hours on devices everyday if you include all the brief checks. I mean, if you’re waiting at the bus stop you’ll check Twitter or something.

How many of those hours are spent on study?I’d say between 30 minutes and an hour. It’s a handy way to check a word or a phrase. I use Google translate a fair bit as well.

Do you ever use Facebook for study-related purposes?No not really. My friends and I would occasionally talk about exams but it’s not really an education tool.

Do you think Facebook has a negative impact on your study habits?It definitely could have. If you’re not prioritising your time you can get into trouble. It’s dangerous to hop on for 10 minutes because suddenly it’s three hours later and you’ve nothing done.

Biggest attraction of Facebook:You know everyone is going to be there. Facebook has even taken over from texting. It’s all done on Facebook messenger. When youre a teenager, your friends are the most important thing in your life and Facebook is where your friends are.

Biggest distraction of Facebook:There’s just so much there, you really could lose yourself.


Junior Cert 2012, Coláiste Bríde, Enniscorthy

Number of Facebook friends:About 400

Hours a day spent on Facebook:I spend about an hour a day on the internet, mostly on the iPhone. It’s not all Facebook though. I like browsing online clothes shops and things like that. I like the process of putting things I want into the bag – it’s like window shopping or something. Pinterest.comis good too.

How many of those hours are spent on study?Apart from Google Translate I dont really use the web for study.

Do you think Facebook has a negative impact on your study habits?Oh yeah, tonnes. It sometimes feels like it’s ruining my life! I use Facebook and the internet in general to procrastinate when I don’t have soccer on or if my room’s tidy Ill go online and spend some time browsing. If I’ve nothing to do, that’s where I go.

Biggest attraction of Facebook:Just the pictures that people post and share. Having a look at what people are posting, seeing if you’re tagged. It’s almost like a popularity contest or something.

Biggest distraction of Facebook:You can just spend a lot of time responding to comments or status updates. I suppose the distraction is the same as the attraction in a way.