Facebook face-off at study time


Many parents are frustrated about the amount of time their teenagers spend on Facebook, and some teachers consider it to be the greatest threat to established study patterns in a generation – and research is proving them right

THINK OF the ways you could spend seven hours a week. Perfecting a new language, maybe learning an instrument – or how about exchanging sound bytes and pictures with people you see all day anyway?

Parents and teachers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the amount of time that students are spending on Facebook. The social networking site has become a universal, round-the-clock presence on laptops and smartphones in classrooms and libraries, studies and bedrooms. What, they are asking, is the impact of all this on homework and concentration?

“Facebook has become an obsession among students,” says John Cronin, principal of Castleknock Community College in Dublin. “They can’t go anywhere or do anything without going and sharing the details online. It must be having an impact on study. It’s like having 15 of your friends in your bedroom with you, chatting away while you try and do your homework.”

Irish second and third level students are spending more and more time on the site. The school students we interviewed confessed to spending between 2 and 8 hours a week on Facebook and a recent UPC study conducted in colleges around the country found that 95 per cent were on Facebook with almost half saying they spend between six and 10 hours on the site each week.

Teens have always found ways to avoid homework; whether it’s reading trashy novels or doodling in the margins. However, research conducted at King’s College in London revealed that sending and receiving messages while working may have more of an impact on concentration levels than other distractions.

Over a thousand volunteers took part in the study, conducted on behalf of Hewlett Packard. The effort of constantly trying to juggle new messages with other tasks caused confusion equivalent to losing a night’s sleep in some cases. The average IQ loss in the volunteers was 10 points.

The main issue, according to psychologists, was the total lack of discipline displayed by volunteers in the way they in handled messages. The telling phrase used was “compulsion to reply” leading to frequent changes of focus which slowed down the brain function in trial subjects.

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author for teenagers and has written a number of books on the subject of how teenagers learn (including Know Your Brain; Blame My Brain). Based on studies around how teenagers’ brains differ from adults’, Nicola advises young readers on how to recognise the strengths and limits of their mental function in adolescence.

“One of the things we know about the teenage brain is that it is very focused on what it wants now. Teens must deal with a very powerful emotional drive to satisfy immediate needs. It is more powerful than their ability to focus on what’s ahead.”

In other words, the desire to check Facebook now may be a great deal more compelling than the desire to do well on a maths test tomorrow.

“If you have a device open and there is the potential for a new message to come in, that expectation is distracting in itself, even if the message never comes,” says Morgan. Even while not online, Facebook may be soaking up attention.

Morgan is keen to point out that some students are better at multi-tasking than others. An admitted technophile herself, the former teacher says that our brains are very plastic and can quickly rewire to learn a new skill. However, she has reservations about the very idea of multi-tasking. “I think we often believe we are more efficient at mixing tasks than we really are. Just because we’re doing it all doesn’t mean we’re doing it all well. I encourage students to try out different approaches to study and take an honest look at how their performance differs when the TV is on, with music on, with Facebook open – and without all these things. We all have different brains.”

The Facebook company, which has headquartered its European operations in Dublin, defends the role of its website in the lives of school children. “Facebook is just one of several ways people young and old can communicate, and to suggest that its use is preventing pupils from achieving their best in school is wrong,” said a spokesperson.

“People can use Facebook to connect with the subjects or organisations that interest them, from science to technology, the arts or medicine. Hundreds of schools are now using Facebook to keep their pupils up to date by sharing lesson plans and news – with one school recently running a whole class on Facebook when snow prevented pupils from getting to school.”

Meanwhile, back at Castleknock Community College, the Parents’ Association is trying to deal with the issue right now. A speaker on the subject of social networking sites is coming to address the group in the hope that parents can devise a way to get through to their Facebook-obsessed teens.

“It’s not just about the impact on study,” says Cronin. “We have had two serious bullying incidents on Facebook since September. Students are very naive about what they put up on the internet. They don’t realise that they are leaving a trail of information for prospective employers to look at. They think it’s private. I keep reminding them of what www means – the world wide web. Once they put it up, it doesn’t belong to them anymore.”

St Andrew’s College in Booterstown is now home to a “Facebook-Free” zone, according to principal Arthur Godsil. “It’s addictive and pervasive, so we have established a three-hour Facebook-free study session for sixth years. No laptops, no phones. At first we had 18 volunteers. Now we have 52. They say it’s great to get away from the temptation and they get much more done. It’s impossible to control beyond the school so we have found a way to circumvent it altogether.”

‘I just want to go on Facebook, I’ll only be a minute’


Status Update“In dire need of a hot cuppa, a warm blanket and a blazing fire . . . on the other hand, loving my new CDs :)”

Number of Facebook friends300

Average time on Facebook Seven hours a week.

Biggest drawI can talk to friends that live far away, as well as my schoolmates.

Biggest drawbackI have it on when I’m doing my homework and it’s very distracting. Things are popping up the whole time when I work and I have to read them.


Status Update“What’s coming up on tomorrow’s maths test?”

Number of Facebook friends120

Average time on FacebookThree-plus hours a week.

Biggest drawIf it’s in front of me, I have to look at it.

Biggest drawbackMy parents get annoyed because they worry about who I’m talking to


Status Update“Not old enough to go to Patrick Wolf gig. Raging!”

Number of Facebook friends200

Average time on FacebookTwo hours a day

Biggest drawI use it to talk to friends I met over the summer

Biggest drawbackI always feel guilty when I’m on it. I know I should be studying


Status Update“The mind doesn’t focus on the full word, only the opening and closing letter.”

Number of Facebook friends135

Average time on Facebook8 hours a week

Biggest drawI keep checking in and getting involved in chats

Biggest drawbackI have it on my iTouch and I’m on it when I should be doing homework. My parents don’t like it


Status Update“Radio playing a lot of Counting Crows today – they’re definitely REM’s less-talented younger brother

Number of Facebook friends550

Average time on FacebookTwo hours a week

Biggest drawIt’s great for organising and uploading pictures

Biggest drawbackI can’t have it on when I’m doing homework, so I keep the two separate

– In conversation with LOUISE HOLDEN