Study Suggests Kids Way Over Report Facebook Use, But Didn’t Track Mobile Use

Asking students about their Facebook use leads to answers that are wildly unreliable:

Rebecca J. Rosen, Report: You Do Not Use Facebook Nearly as Much as You Think You Do

A new study reports (pdf) found that college students estimated that they spent 149 minutes *per day* on Facebook, but when monitoring software was installed on their computers, the data revealed a much smaller number: just 26 minutes.

Reynol Junco, a scholar with Harvard’s Berkman Center, says that the students in the study did have a pretty good sense of their relative Facebook use: Students who were heavier users estimated higher; those who were lighter users suggested as much. But ALL were wildly off when it came to the absolute estimate. (Though the number of students participating in the study was quite small – just 45 – Junco says the effect was so huge that the result is nevertheless reliable.)

Why were the students so off in their self-reports? Junco has four theories.

“It could be,” Junco said to me, “that the self-report questions aren’t specific enough.” The question students answered was “how much time do you spend on Facebook each day?” which seems pretty straightforward – except that that phrase “spend on” is actually a bit ambiguous. In focus groups after the study was complete, when Junco asked for their own theories about the results, “a lot of them – and this was very surprising – a lot of them said that they would take the question to mean how much time to do they spend *thinking* about Facebook,” Junco explained. Spending time on something doesn’t just mean the act of being on Facebook, but the act of expending mental energy on it. That ambiguity may have led students to overestimate their time on the site.

Another explanation – one that Junco particularly likes, though he needs more research to support it – is that students might have internalized societal expectations about their social-media use. “Society tells youths that they use technology a lot. They hear it from everybody. They hear it from the popular media; they hear it from adults; they hear it from their teachers,” he said. “That would lead them, not very consciously but possibly subconsciously, to give very inflated estimates.”

The third possibility is that student might be using Facebook from mobile devices that the software used in the study doesn’t track, in which case the whole study might be wrong. This is my bet. The kids might be Facebooking on their mobiles half the time they are hanging around with pals.

And the fourth possibility is that they are just bad at estimating how much time they are doing something.

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