'Facebocrastination' a problem for students, researchers find

Facebook is an incredibly powerful global communication tool. But it can also be an incredible time-suck when you should be working. And now, there's research to explain why 'Facebocrastination' is such a problem.

'Always on' nature of social media makes Facebook procrastination different, study says

Researchers at a German university studied what they call 'Facebocrastination' - the habit of using Facebook to procrastinate. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Facebook is an incredibly powerful global communication tool. But it can also be an incredible time-suck when you should be working.

And now, there's research to explain why.

A team at a German university set out to better understand the science of Facebook procrastination. CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains what they found out.

What is 'Facebocrastination'?

We're talking about a very specific way to use Facebook — essentially, using it to slack off, intentionally or unintentionally.

Adrian Meier was one of the researchers on a study looking at Facebook and procrastination. (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)
For example, you're working on something, and at a certain point what you're working on becomes difficult or boring. So you take a quick break, you check into Facebook — and you lose track of time and end up using Facebook much longer than you meant to. That's Facebook procrastination. Or as the researchers at the The Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz call it, "Facebocrastination," a phenomenon they studied among students.

"The students kind of blame Facebook for their dilatory behaviour... when they try to study for an exam or try to get a term paper done," according to Adrian Meier, one of the researchers.

"They kind of feel their procrastination is caused by Facebook, or that Facebook makes them do it — makes them lose track of time."

So they wanted to find out why that is, and whether there are factors that make you more or less likely to procrastinate on Facebook.

What did the researchers find?

They identified three different predictors of procrastination on Facebook. The first is what psychologists call "trait self-control." This is a personality trait — part of your character. 

And their findings say Facebook procrastination is essentially a failure of self-control, similar to over-eating or spending money beyond your means. Low self-control predicts procrastination, according to the University of Mainz research.

The University of Mainz researchers found three likely predictors of Facebook procrastination, including a lack of self-control, habitual Facebook checking, and a high enjoyment of Facebook. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
The second predictor is checking Facebook habitually. If you check Facebook automatically or impulsively, that also predicts procrastination, the researchers found.

And the third predictor is "high enjoyment of Facebook." So if you get a lot of pleasure from the content you see there, or the messages you receive, you're more likely to find yourself slacking off on Facebook.

Does this apply to other social networks?

These studies focused specifically on Facebook. But Meier said he thinks the predictors can be generalized to other social networks like Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. 

He also pointed out there are several important differences between procrastinating with online media such as Facebook versus traditional media such as TV.

Meier says that has to do with the always-on, always-connected nature of smartphones. Unlike a television, which might be in another room, a smartphone means that the opportunity for procrastination is always right there, in our pockets and purses. It's ubiquitous.

Also, because services like Facebook have notifications, the opportunities for distraction and procrastination come right to us, in real-time. A television, on the other hand, isn't going to come knock on the door of your dorm room and encourage you to watch it.

What are the negative effects of Facebook procrastination?

Because the researchers were studying students, they found a number of negative academic consequences, including greater academic stress among procrastinators. But Meier said that could easily translate to non-students.

Researchers found Facebook procrastination resulted in negative academic consequences, including greater academic stress, among students they studied. (Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters)
"People that procrastinate more often in a lot of domains of life, they tend to report a lot of stress," he said.

"They even show worsened health — at least some people do. And they tend to report less satisfaction with their lives, for example."

What's more, they found people who procrastinate using Facebook attribute those negative consequences to Facebook.

"It's much easier to blame Facebook, obviously, than to admit to yourself that you've delayed something important that you wanted to get done."

The attitude seems to be, "I'm not the problem — Facebook made me do it." 

How can we avoid the 'Facebook procrastination' trap?

Meier said that often, we use Facebook passively — we're not actively engaged. Rather, we simply "check in" to see what's happening, or browse without a particular goal in mind. 

We see this in the habitual checking behaviour already mentioned. Those moments where you're standing in line for a coffee, and you find yourself checking Facebook almost impulsively, without remembering why you pulled your phone out in the first place.

Meier this kind of passive use is related to negative well-being effects, like the stress he mentioned. So his recommendation, based on all his research, is to be more mindful and more intentional when you use social networks.

That can help keep five minutes from turning into 15 when you really should be focused on work.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.


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