Spring 2009 Survey: Information and Communication Technology
General Purpose | Major Findings | Interview Schedule
It is no wonder that current undergraduates are part of the so-called “Net Generation.” The Word Wide Web came into existence before most of them were born; they were introduced to computers at a very early age and are far more technologically savvy than their parents. Surveys show that almost all college students these days own a personal computer; upwards of two-thirds own a cell phone with Web access; and they spend almost 3 hours per day online (see Salaway and Caruso, 2008). Our data indicate that students’ use of ICTs at the three colleges began early in life and is extensive. Consider the following:
Hidden in this summary was considerable variability in ICT use, with some interesting variations across institutions, gender, and academic class. There were no significant differences across the three colleges in Facebook use; however, Pomona students spent more time on the Internet than students at the other two colleges, and Holy students were much more likely to make phone calls and to send text messages. Suggestive of distinct campus norms, at Holy Cross on a typical day, students made on average 4-5 phone calls and sent 20-25 text messages; by comparison, students at Bowdoin and Pomona averaged about 3 phone calls and fewer than 10 text messages. Women were more likely to use their cell phones and spent more time on Facebook than men. Academic class was directly related to age of first Internet use and to number of phone calls, but inversely related to Facebook use; that is, the younger students were, the earlier they started using the Internet, the fewer calls made on their cell phones each day, and the more time spent on Facebook.
We did not ask students to describe their current online activities, but we did explore the reasons why students first used the Internet. When asked to recall the purpose for which they first went online, most students mentioned one of four reasons: educational purposes (39%), Instant Messaging (IM) (30%), video games (23%), and e-mail (17%). There were no significant gender differences, but there were some sharp differences by academic class. Older students were more likely to say that they first went online for IM and e-mail, whereas younger students were more likely to report that their first online experience was playing games.
A good deal of students’ use of ICTs, including word processing, spreadsheets, presentational software, library Web sites, and course management systems, is connected to their course work. The vast majority also download music and videos. But what makes ICTs central to the lives of college students is their ubiquitous use for communicating and socializing with others. Besides the universal use of e-mail, it is estimated that nearly three-quarters of students use IM, and over 80 percent use text messaging and social network sites, with about 90 percent on Facebook (Salaway and Caruso, 2008). Of these forms of computer-mediated communication, social network sites (SNSs) uniquely “enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (Boyd and Ellison, 2007:1), creating online social worlds that are integral to the larger campus culture.
Founded in February 2004, Facebook initially was designed to support college networks only. And, even though it eventually expanded to include everyone, its niche remains online college communities. Only 3 of 452 respondents said that they never had a Facebook account. When we asked students to which SNSs they currently belonged, 97.3 percent were members of Facebook; one in five students belonged to more than one SNS, with14.4 percent members of MySpace.com and 13.3 percent belonging to various other sites. Also indicative of Facebook’s increasing importance to students, we found an increasing number of students spending time on Facebook before they entered college—networking with others to get information and learn more about the college. This was true of three quarters of first-year students as compared with one-half of third- and fourth-year students.
Each Facebook user creates a profile containing all the information that the user wishes others to see. We asked respondents to tell us which of several types of information they included in their profiles. As Table 10.2 shows, most students posted photographs of themselves and gave their home address, e-mail address, and the name of their high school; about half revealed their relationship status and AIM address; and one in four provided their cell phone number. In addition, many students (34.2%) posted videos and over 80 percent posted one or more photo albums.
Table 10.2. Percentage of Facebook users (N=444) with various elements in Facebook profile.
Facebook users also have the option of joining one or more networks. By joining a network, a Facebook user has access to the Facebook profiles of other network users. Virtually all students were members of their college network; the majority (64.3%) had joined their high school network; and nearly half (47.7%) belonged to at least one other network. Finally, users can control access to information in their profiles by adjusting their privacy settings. In general, access was restricted to friends, especially personal information, status updates, and wall posts, which two-thirds of the respondents made available only to friends or friends of friends. So, to a great extent, it appears that Facebook serves users as a means of communicating with “friends.” However, Facebook “friends” encompass not only friends in the traditional sense but also mere acquaintances and even persons whom the user has never met. The number of Facebook friends reported by our respondents ranged from 20 to more than 1000, with a median of 400, and about one-half of the sample said that their Facebook friends included people whom they had never met in person.
We asked students how often they used Facebook for various purposes on a 7-point scale ranging from “never” to “routinely throughout each day.” Table 10.3 shows how students responded; to simplify the presentation, we collapsed a couple categories and also estimated the number of times each week. Further analysis suggested that these items could be grouped into three general purposes. One function of Facebook has been described by Ana Martinez Aleman and Katherine Lynk Wartman (2009) as “voyeuristic.” That is, users enter Facebook to learn more about others, sometimes (in the parlance of Facebook users) to “stalk” or keep tabs on them, such as a man trying to find out how is girlfriend is spending her time. This is represented by items 2 and 4, although students high on this use dimension also tend to “score” high on item 1. The second purpose involves staying in touch with friends, both those whom users see a lot (item 3) and those they seldom see (items 5 and 6). The third dimension is the use of Facebook to find people to meet (items 11 and 12). Respondents high on this dimension were more apt than others to tag photos on their Facebook page (item 10).
Table 10.3. Frequency of Facebook use for various purposes (N=444).
When we examined these three purposes or types of use across institutions, gender, and academic class, we found no significant institutional differences, but some interesting gender and class patterns. Women were more likely than men to use Facebook both to stay in touch with and to learn more about others. Also, as academic class increased, the use of Facebook to stay in touch with friends decreased significantly.
To explore various issues surrounding Facebook use, we asked students to tell us how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements presented in Table 10.4. According to Aleman and Wartman, Facebook analysts—both journalists and researchers—have been especially interested in user identity and authenticity. As the table shows, a near majority of users were “very conscious” of their image on Facebook, and the majority believed that their Facebook profile described them accurately and created a positive impression. On the other hand, users tended to be skeptical of the accuracy of others’ profiles (item 4). There may be many reasons why users perceive their own profiles as less than “accurate” and also doubt the veracity of others’ identity “claims.” This may reflect the understanding that self-presentations can be playful and ironic. Users may believe that certain information is intentionally counterfeit; or they may see Facebook profiles as partial or incomplete images.
Another set of issues that has received much attention revolves around privacy and security. Users may worry about the misuse of personal information by others or leaving a history that could cause problems (e.g., when applying for a job); about security problems such as exposure to files carrying viruses; or about cyberstalking or cyberbullying. One recent national survey of college students concluded that students were not “overly concerned” about such issues (Salway and Caruso, 2008). However, our respondents tended to agree that being on Facebook had heightened their concern about privacy (item 5).
Table 10.4. Level of agreement with various statements about Facebook use in percents (N=444).
As Facebook is organized around particular communities, recent research has begun to focus on the nature of these communities and how students relate to others within them. Items 6-8 examined users’ perception of the boundary of the Facebook community. Even though Facebook is no longer restricted to students, a sizeable minority of our students (45.9%) agreed that it should be a “students only” space. Nearly the same percentage of respondents also indicated that they would not welcome the presence of Faculty members on Facebook, although a scant majority indicated that they would accept a friend request from a faculty member.
Many commentators also have expressed concern about the negative consequences of time spent on Facebook such as interfering with academic work or taking away from real-life social activities. Whatever the consequences, the majority of our respondents did agree that they were spending too much time on Facebook. And the more time students reported spending on Facebook, the more strongly they agreed that it took too much of their time.
Of these issues, only the three items on Facebook boundaries were consistently associated with institution, gender, or academic class. Holy Cross students, women, and younger students were more likely than their counterparts to believe that Facebook should be a student-only space. Also, Holy Cross students and women were more strongly opposed to faculty presence on Facebook (items 7 and 8). Women and older students were more apt to agree that Facebook had heightened their concern about privacy, perhaps reflecting a greater awareness of potential risks. Finally, Holy Cross students were more likely than Bowdoin and Pomona students to be very conscious of their Facebook image and to believe that their profile described them accurately.
The use of cell phones has increased rapidly in recent years, with much of it occurring among young people. This is particularly true of the increasing dependence on mobile (cellular or wireless) as opposed to landline telephones. According to the National Health Interview Survey, in the last six months of 2008, one in every five households did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless telephone, which represents a threefold increase in wireless substitution in the last five years. The two age groups with the largest percentage living in wireless-only households were 18-24 and 25-29 year olds. About one-third of 18-24 year-olds had only wireless telephone service (Blumberg and Luke, 2009).
At the three colleges in this survey, all but 3 of 452 respondents reported that they owned a working cell phone. A little over half also had a working landline phone at school; however, 94 percent of those with both landline and cellular telephones received all or almost all calls on their cellular telephones. Moreover, a similar percentage (93%) indicated that their cell phone was always or almost always within reach. So, landline telephone usage was nearly passé among this population.
Most respondents had been using a cellular telephone for several years, usually beginning in junior high or early in high school. And, for most it was not merely an instrument of voice communication. Nearly all of our respondents had text messaging services on their cell phones, which they were far more apt to use than to make voice calls. Over three-quarters reported making five or fewer telephone “calls” per day, whereas three in five students said that they sent 10 or more text messages on a typical day. Although we did not ask, it is safe to assume that many students use their cellular phones to access the Internet as most cell phones these days are Internet-capable. Also, two-thirds reported that they had used their phones to take pictures, which they often shared with others by showing them the phone screen, sending a phone message, and/or uploading them on Facebook.
Means of Communication
Table 10.5. Frequency of communicating with various means of communication among friends at
Irrespective of the other, respondents were highly unlikely to communicate via a landline telephone. Otherwise, they used a variety of media, especially with friends. Aside from spending time in person with friends at their college, they communicated most frequently with others via a cellular phone, combining text messaging with voice communication. Students were more selective, however, about how they communicated with their parents than with their friends. With parents, they seldom used IM or sent messages through Facebook and they tended to call rather than text their parents on their cell phones, whereas the reverse was true with friends.
The mode of distance communication also depended on the purpose of the conversation. Table 10.6 presents students’ preferences when asked which form of distance communication—Facebook, telephone calls, texting, E-mail, or IM—they preferred for various purposes. To make plans to socialize with friends, students tended either to text or call on their cell phones. To carry on a conversation with friends, they preferred a telephone call to texting. But to carry on a conversation with someone with whom they wanted to develop a relationship, they tended to choose one of three options: speaking on the phone, texting, or Facebook. For keeping in touch with parents, our respondents overwhelmingly preferred to speak on the phone; and to set up an appointment with a faculty member, nearly all students would communicate via e-mail. Thus, it appears that the closer the relationship and the more personal the purpose, the more interactive the choice of communication. In contacting family and carrying on a conversation with friends, respondents chose the most interactive form, cell phone calls, involving voice communication; in setting up an appointment with faculty, they chose the least interactive, e-mail.
Table 10.6. Mode of distance communication preferred for various communication purposes in percents
These preference patterns were not appreciably different across institutions, gender, and class. However, the frequency with which students used various communication media did vary. Holy Cross students communicated more frequently through texting and IM than students at Bowdoin and Pomona, and Bowdoin students used e-mail more often than students at the other two schools. Holy Cross students also communicated more frequently with their parents, especially via cell phones and IM, than students at the other colleges. Consistent with other research (see, e.g., the fall 2004 and spring 2005 HCSS), women communicated more often with others, both friends and parents, than men. The most marked (statistically significant) differences between men and women in communication modes were sending text messages to friends and talking on the telephone, texting, and e-mailing parents. Reflecting patterns of general use reported earlier, younger students were more apt to communicate with friends through Facebook than older students, while older students more often communicated with friends through e-mail.
Effects of ICT use
ICTs use and face-to-face communication. As with any new technology, there has been much debate about the potentially beneficial and harmful effects of ICTs. These effects are too numerous to mention here, but our data do provide partial answers to a few issues. One issue concerns the extent to which ICT use decreases face-to-face interaction, thereby diminishing social relationships. One early study of the impact of the Internet on social involvement (Kraut et al., 1998) found that greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in communication with family members in the household and in the size of one’s circle of friends. On the other hand, according to Nicole Ellison (2008), recent evidence suggests that students use Facebook to supplement rather than replace face-to-face communication.
We asked students to tell us how satisfied they were with the amount of in-person interaction they had with friends at their college. As expected, satisfaction decreased as the self-reported frequency of in-person interaction decreased. Consistent with Kraut et al’s. finding, satisfaction declined as the number of minutes of Internet use per day increased. But satisfaction was unrelated to a composite measure of frequency of distance communication. Also, contrary to the replacement hypothesis, face-to-face contact was positively associated with some forms of distance communication. Specifically, the more often students interacted with their college friends in person, the more often they talked on the telephone, sent text messages, and sent messages through Facebook. In addition, the more often students interacted with their parents in person, the more often they spoke with them on either a landline or cellular telephone.
ICT use and academic performance. In April 2009 a paper presented at a professional meeting ignited a firestorm of speculation about the harmful effects of using the social networking site Facebook. Aryn Karpinski, a graduate student at Ohio State, reported that Facebook users had lower grades than those who do not use Facebook. Although she was careful to note the study’s limitations, especially to point out the illogic of inferring from her findings that using Facebook lowers grades (Karpinski, 2009), many journalists nonetheless sounded the alarm. As social scientists called for further study, an online article appearing in First Monday one month later (Pasek, more, and Hargittai, 2009) presented new findings from three data sets. The authors’ conclusion: “We find no evidence that Facebook use is related to diminished academic performance.”
Based on findings from our spring survey at three elite, liberal arts colleges, it would be as hasty to conclude no connection between Facebook and grades as it would be to condemn Facebook. Similar to the Karpinski study, we found a negative correlation between Facebook use and grades: The more time students reported that they spent on Facebook each day, the lower their GPA. Moreover, this association remained when we controlled for students’ sex, age, and parents’ level of education.
The three colleges in this study are hardly representative of U.S. college students, so one should be cautious in generalizing to all undergraduates. The basic finding from the three-college study also does not necessarily imply that Facebook use affects grades. It may, but it is also possible that students who are not doing well academically seek outlets such as Facebook to while away their days. Or, just as plausible, poorer students or students prone to procrastinate may do less well academically and also be inclined to spend more time on Facebook. It remains for additional research to clarify the causal connections.
Facebook and social capital. The benefits of SNSs like Facebook can be understood through the concept of social capital. Social capital refers to the resources that people accrue through their social networks. For example, close ties such as family and friends may provide emotional and financial support; looser connections between people, known as “weak ties,” give people access to new perspectives and information. Ellison and colleagues (2007) contend that Facebook fosters social capital by enabling users to mobilize resources from a network of weak ties. To test this hypothesis among students at Michigan State University, they created independent measures of “Facebook intensity” and social capital. As expected, Facebook intensity was positively associated with social capital.
The three-college survey included a shortened version of the social capital scale and two key items measuring Facebook “intensity”—number of Facebook friends and frequency of use—that were included in the Ellison et al. study. Consistent with the findings at Michigan State, social capital was positively associated with number of Facebook friends; however, it was not associated with either time per day spent on Facebook or a composite measure of “intensity” consisting of number of Facebook friends and time on Facebook.
Students’ extensive use of cellular telephones and the social networking site Facebook typify the emerging age of personalized communication. For a digitally-savvy population, these media make it easier than ever before to access and exchange vast amounts of personal information and to form and maintain social relationships. A conservative estimate of media use is that the majority of students at these three liberal arts colleges spend at least an hour a day on Facebook and their cell phones combined, primarily to socialize and communicate with college friends they frequently see in person and secondarily to keep in touch with friends in other locales. Thus these ICTs support social relations with peers with whom students already have formed a relationship.
While students also used their cell phones to communicate with parents, they tended to reserve Facebook for communication with peers. In fact, a near majority believed that Facebook should be a student-only space and a substantial majority (69%) was either ambivalent about or opposed to the presence of faculty members on Facebook. Many students reported that Facebook had heightened their concern about privacy. And perhaps reflecting this concern, the majority of students restricted access to even the most basic information on their profiles. Students most often accessed Facebook just for fun with no specific purpose, which may explain why we found a negative (albeit weak) association between Facebook use and grade-point average. On the other hand, the more friends students reported having on Facebook, the higher their level of social capital.