Downside: Multitasking taking a slight hit on grades

As an RA at Wyview Park, Wade Jacobsen wondered whether the students he supervised spent more time with friends on Facebook than they did in-person.

His curiosity grew into a formal research project, and now Jacobsen knows exactly how first-year students spent their time during fall semester of 2008. A thousand students kept detailed time diaries for two weekdays and one weekend day.

Here are a few fun facts from the report Jacobsen published this week with Professor Renata Forste in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking:

  • The first-year students averaged 52 minutes per day on social networks such as Facebook.
  • On average, they sent between 11 and 20 text messages per day and spent 45 minutes texting or talking on a cell phone.
  • Most students had between 150 and 200 Facebook friends.

More significantly, Jacobsen’s analysis reveals that Facebook and cell phones facilitated face-to-face interactions for this group of students. Initially the researchers suspected that digital media would partially replace offline socializing. Instead they found that face time increased by 10 to 15 minutes for every hour spent with social media and cell phones.

“Unlike when the Internet was relatively new, the friends you have online now are the same set of friends you have in real life,” Jacobsen said. “The technology helps students get together and make plans.”

The fact that face time lives on among the “wired generation” is good news considering relationships improve our odds of survival.

But Jacobsen also sought to answer how academic performance is affected in this potentially distracting digital age. The 1,026 students who maintained time diaries later shared their grades with Jacobsen at semester’s end.

  • This group of BYU students studied much more each week than the national average for full-time college students in their first year.
  • Sixty-two percent of the students in the sample reported multitasking – defined as using non-academic digital media while in class, doing homework or studying.
  • Controlling for study time and other factors, GPA was reduced by .05 for each hour that a student averaged each day with digital media.

For reference, a .05 decline in semester GPA is like a student with a full credit load dropping from a B+ to a B in one class. The effect size was similar for each type of digital media they studied: social networks, cell phones, video games and movies. The researchers suspect that multitasking is behind the connection with grades.

“Other studies suggest that you really can’t multitask and expect to always maintain the same level of performance,” Forste said.

Professor Forste says that Jacobsen’s findings are methodologically sound and were deemed worthy of peer-reviewed publication. She also notes that the findings may not apply broadly because the study population – first-year students at BYU – is unique in many respects.

Full text of Jacobsen and Forste’s study is available here: http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2010.0135

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