That Facebook is hugely distracting is hardly stop-the-presses kind of news, but parents might be dismayed to learn that the social-media site can hobble learning and make kids less healthy and more depressed.
Research has found that students in middle school, high school and college who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period got lower grades. Other studies have discovered that teens who use Facebook tend to have more narcissistic tendencies, while young adults who are active on the site display other psychological disorders. And daily use of media and technology — what teen doesn’t use tech each day? — makes kids more prone to anxiety and depression.
The bad news was delivered over the weekend at the 119th annual convention of the American Psychological Association by Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who researches the psychology of technology.
There’s good news too, of course. While Facebook and other technology has been blamed for hijacking childhood, they also help children develop their identities and hone their ability to empathize with others. In a study that Rosen recently wrapped up, he found that the kids most able to show “virtual empathy” — through supportive comments online — were those who spent more time online than other children. “We are finding that kids who are able to express more virtual empathy are able to expres more real-world empathy,” says Rosen. “They feel more supported socially by online and offline networks.”
Navigating children’s online time — how much is too much? Or not enough? — is tricky. “A parent’s job is now way more complex,” says Rosen, who has done research on how technology influences people for more than 25 years. “We have created a world for students where they can not focus because we have given them all this really cool stuff that is distracting. We’re teetering on the balance – too much time online can lead to health problems and narcissism, but it can also teach you to be more empathic and develop your sense of self.”
While observing kids’ study behavior, researchers watched as students spent 15 minutes studying something important to them. “What we found was mind-boggling,” says Rosen. About every three minutes they are off-task. You’d think under these constraints, knowing that someone is observing you, that someone would be more on task.”
Some of their findings:
- The more time elapsed, the more windows opened on the student’s computer. The amount of windows peaked at 8-10 minutes, and on-task behavior declined at the same point
- When students stayed on task, they performed better
- When they toggled between windows and other tasks, they performed worse
“The more media they consumed per day, the worse students they were,” says Rosen. “If they checked Facebook just once during 15 minutes, they were worse students.”
Psychologists and teachers can combat the decline in productivity by teaching students about the concept of metacognition — knowing how your brain works and how to study. For studying, that means turning off Facebook and not task-switching.
One strategy that Rosen recommends to schools is “tech breaks,” in which teachers help students increase their attention span. Teachers start by picking a 15-minute block of time in which students must put away their phones and focus. When the time expires, students are allowed a one-minute tech break to use apps, sends texts or check Facebook.
“One minute turns out to be a pretty darn long time,” says Rosen. “We now know neurologically that if we don’t have a tech break, kids are already starting to think about anything other than what the teacher talking about. If they know they get a tech break, they’re able to stop those thoughts. It works amazingly.”
In another study, researchers gave 750 teens and adults a test to assess psychological personality disorders. They also asked participants how much they used technology. Even after factoring out characteristics including age, gender, income and education, Facebook use predicted psychological disorders.
In particular, teens who log on more are more narcissistic. “We don’t know if teens who are narcissistic are more drawn to Facebook or if Facebook makes them narcissistic,” says Rosen.
And in different research that involved anonymous online surveys of more than 1,000 parents who were asked about media use, health, eating habits and exercise, moms and dads indicated that kids who used more media daily were sicker, emotionally and physically.
“When a kid’s on tech, we tend to think we don’t want to bother them because they’re quiet,” says Rosen. “But that’s the time you need to pay attention. We have to start very young talking to kids about tech breaks and exercise and time spent off media. There is a need for moderation and balance.”
Of course, Rosen realizes he’s coming at his research from a remote perspective; his days of parenting impressionable youngsters are over now that he’s got twentysomethings. “My daughter is 21 and sends like 8,000 texts a month. My son is 24 and posts on Facebook every single thing he does,” he says. “I’m so happy I was able to raise them in an era when the worst thing was a bad video game.”