MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to turn now to a new study about social media, specifically Facebook. You've probably seen that the site is unbelievably popular among college students. You can find them posting updates on the bus, chatting in the library, tagging photos while they walk. But even though nearly every student has Facebook, there's a new study that says different groups use the site in many different ways. And according to the study, at least, that can have surprising implications for student success in college and even beyond.
Those are the recent findings of a study by Rey Junco. He's an associate professor at Purdue University. He's also a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. We often talk to him about trends in social media, and he's with us now. Rey Junco, thanks so much for joining us once again.
REY JUNCO: It's always great to be here, Michel. Thank you.
MARTIN: What exactly were you trying to find out with this study? What were you curious about?
JUNCO: The research on digital inequality suggests that people from different backgrounds use the Internet in different ways, and so I wanted to see if that applied to Facebook. So I looked at the gender, race and ethnicity, and I also looked at socioeconomic status. And each of those groups spent, you know, equal amounts of time on Facebook, but women were more likely to post and tag photos, view photos, comment on content and post status updates.
African-Americans were less likely to check up on friends. And those from lower socioeconomic statuses were less likely to engage in a wide variety of activities, including sending private messages, viewing videos, posting videos, tagging videos, chatting, tagging photos and creating or RSVPing to events?
MARTIN: OK, so let's say African-American males are more likely to play games on Facebook, and white women, white girl students, are more likely to write private messages. Why would that have implications for their academic success?
JUNCO: What women are doing, they are communicating and connecting more than men. That can be seen not only as a direct predictor of something like, like student academic success, but it's also a social information-seeking behavior, and that is incredibly important for student success.
Students need to feel like they have both an academic and a social connection to the institution in order to be successful. We know that those are major predictors of whether a student will stay in college or not.
MARTIN: But how do we know that they're checking up on each other for academic reasons or just finding out where they're going to hang out on the weekend? Why would that have anything to do with academic success? I think a lot of parents might hear this and think, you know, I'm glad my son is not spending so much time socializing online. He should be studying.
JUNCO: Right, and to that person I would say that the social aspects of college are just as important as the academic aspects of college, because students need to know how to interact in society, as well as interact with their textbooks and do well on quizzes.
MARTIN: According to what data? Who says? I mean, 'cause we all know kids who spend a lot of times in, a lot of time in the library seem to do pretty well.
JUNCO: There's clearly research to show that students need to create a connection on campus within their first three to six weeks. And if they don't do that, they're at a very high risk of dropping out. And so there is a good deal of literature on retention that focuses on these two concepts, the concepts of academic and social integration and how important those both are to student success.
MARTIN: Can you draw conclusions, though, that suggest that the way these students are engaging with social media has something to do with their success, or is it other factors? Is this a causation or is this a correlation?
Is it just something that this kind of behavior just happens to be associated with kids who might have a tougher road a hoe in college anyway because, perhaps, their parents didn't go to college, or they don't come from - maybe they're the only person in their family who's ever gone to college?
JUNCO: The study is certainly correlational. But you touch on a very important point, and that is, for any kind of behavior or outcome, there are so many things that go into that behavior. So there's so many predictors of that behavior. What I'm talking about is, perhaps, a very small slice of the pie, but the results were significant enough to, you know, certainly talk about and publish.
MARTIN: The other thing that's interesting to me is that you noted that these kids are all in college. The same kinds of social segregation that so many people have seen on college campuses, you know, like the white kids sitting with the white kids, the swimmers sitting with the swimmers - I think people have this impression that a lot of that stuff goes away in the social media world. Are you finding that really the world of social media just kind of replicates the physical world in the way people interact?
JUNCO: Yes, and I think that's exactly what this study says. If you're looking at it at the 35,000-foot level, what I'm basically saying, and what I found here, is that the power dynamics that we see in education, generally, are replicated online. So these digital inequalities that we see very early on in education, with students from lower socioeconomic statuses and areas being encouraged to use computers differently than their higher socioeconomic status peers, is clearly replicated here on Facebook, as well.
MARTIN: Are there other implications that you feel comfortable drawing for students, for parents, for educators who are listening to this and might be thinking about how to engage with students on Facebook, or students who are hearing this thinking about how they use Facebook when they head off to college in the fall? Can you offer some guides for bridging this?
JUNCO: One important key idea is to stop thinking that all students are great with technology and use it in the same ways. If you make those assumptions, then you behave in ways towards your students that might actually reinforce those inequalities. So for instance, if I think that all my students know how to do a certain thing on Facebook or do a certain thing with an e-mail attachment, and a student says, well, I can't do that, you might scoff at them or be irritated.
And that's really not where we should be going with that. I think if we're doing anything with technology in a classroom that we have to make sure that all of our students are on the same page. And so part of including technology in a classroom is making sure to educate students about how you're going to use that technology in the classroom and perhaps even the mores and cultures of the specific technology tool like Facebook, for instance.
MARTIN: So for example, if you're organizing a study group, or if the students are organizing a study group...
MARTIN: ...don't assume that if you post that information on Facebook, all students are going to get it.
JUNCO: That's a really great example, because students from lower socioeconomic statuses are less likely to RSVP to an event. So if that's the case, then they're less likely to attend that kind of study group, putting them at, you know, a double disadvantage there.
MARTIN: Rey Junco is a name you often hear on this program. He's an associate professor at Purdue University. He's also a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and he was with us from member station WLRN in Miami. Professor Junco, thanks so much for joining us.
JUNCO: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.