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 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.
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.
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 (studentstudybuddy.com). 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.”
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.
The Irish Times, 3/4/2012