Will Facebook hurt your grades?

By Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

In a recent study, U.S. college students who use Facebook had significantly lower grades than people who didn't use the social networking site.

Typically, Facebook users had GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5 – a full half point below students who did not use Facebook, reported the study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and Ohio Dominican University. In addition, Facebook users also only studied one to five hours per week, compared to 11 to 15 hours per week for non-users.

The results were to be presented by co-author Aryn Karpinski, who is completing her doctorate in education, at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association on Thursday. But days earlier, they had found their way into a barrage of headlines around the world.

Did the study deserve all the excitement?

Sure, the results were kind of shocking and could have huge implications – after all, Facebook reports that it has more than 200 million active users around the world, about a third of whom are college students.

On the other hand, only 148 of those users were surveyed in the study. That's less than 0.0001 per cent of Facebook users.

And the study included just 71 students who didn't use Facebook.

The authors said the study was just a "small, exploratory" pilot study, but didn't indicate in any of their press releases what their estimated margin of error might be. Chances are, it was big.

In a study this small, individual variations and small groupings of people can cause big swings in the numbers. Think of polling results that come in during election. At a single poll when counting begins, it may look like the Green Party is winning. But once more and more polls are counted, it becomes clear that there will be no political seismic shift – your Conservative MP is coming back after all.

In the case of this study, all the students who participated went to Ohio State University, so it's hard to know whether the results can be generalized.

About half were graduate students and the other half were undergraduates. The study didn't indicate any breakdown of what they were studying, but did say science, technology, engineering, math and business majors, and younger, full-time students were more likely to use Facebook than students majoring in humanities and social sciences and older, part-time students. That could make a difference in itself. I don't know about you, but the class average in my first year calculus class was a few letters further down in the alphabet than it was in my graduate journalism classes (mind you – my sample size there was pretty darn small!).

The researchers themselves also admit that even though there was clearly a relationship between grades and Facebook use in their study, there wasn't any way to establish any cause and effect.

Overall, does this mean the results of the new study aren't valid?

No … but maybe it's worthwhile to wait for a study with a few thousand more students before getting too worked up.