Facebook, College and Social Connection

A few months ago a study I conducted with my colleagues Jason Morris, Charles Mattis and Jeff Reese appeared in the Journal of College Student Retention.

The goal of the study, conducted across the 2006-2007 school years, was to see if Facebook usage would predict college retention (defined as returning to the university after your freshmen year). Prior retention studies had shown that social integration--feeling connected and involved with your peers on the campus--was predictive of retention. This makes sense. If you have lots of friends at the school you are more likely to return for your sophomore year. If, however, you feel alienated and lonely, you'd be more likely to stay home or switch schools.

Social integration is generally measured by self-report, asking students how connected or lonely they feel on campus. That and asking about how many clubs or activities the student is involved in.

At the time of our study Facebook was growing in popularity. So we wondered, Facebook claims to be a social affiliation network. If so, might Facebook be used to measure social integration on our campus? And if it could, would Facebook activity predict college retention?

So in the spring of 2006 we randomly selected 375 students from the ACU freshmen class and assessed four Facebook variables:

# of Facebook friends
# of Wall Posts
# of Photo Albums
# of Groups
We then waited for the summer to pass and then checked to see which of the 375 students came back for their sophomore year. We then compared the Facebook data of those who came back versus those who did not return.

We found two significant Facebook predictors of returning to the university: Number of friends and number of Wall Posts. More specifically, those who came back to school had an average of 27 more friends and 59 more Wall Posts than those who did not return.

The Friends variable makes sense, but I've always been interested in the Wall Post finding. People can collect a lot of "friends" on Facebook, but a Wall Post involves someone taking the time to come to your Facebook wall and write something. Usually, this signals a degree of intimacy. That is, while you might not know all the people who are your Facebook friends, odds are you know, very well, the people regularly posting on your Wall.

So it would make sense that if a college student had a lot of Wall Posts they would be more socially integrated and connected. Lots of people checking in, saying hello and setting up plans.

Anyway, our study just got picked up in an article by Brian Chen in Wired. Here's the bit from my interview with Brian:

The University of Michigan researchers theorized that the drop in empathy might be due to students’ excessive exposure of media, such as violent videogames, which “numbs people to the pain of others.” They also suggested that perhaps connecting with friends online makes it easier to shut out real-world issues.

“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” said Edward O’Brien, a University of Michigan graduate student who helped with the study.

However, Abilene Christian’s Facebook study led researchers to different interpretations. They believe that rather than sites like Facebook being an escape from reality, it’s actually a mirror for their real-life interactions. The students who were more actively connecting with people on Facebook were most likely already connectors in the real world.

“At the time we did this study, the big debate was whether or not the Facebook world was a virtual pseudo social world or whether or not it actually reflected real world relationships,” said Richard Beck, associate professor and chair of psychology at Abilene Christian, who came up with the idea of the Facebook study. “[The study] all seemed to indicate that what was going on Facebook was paralleling their social experience on campus. Rather than replacing it, it was mirroring it.”

This idea of Facebook "mirroring" reality was one of the notions that led me to conclude, and kicking off a great deal of Internet conversation, that Facebook is killing the church.

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