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Facebook and Students’ Brains

by Dr. Sara Sawtelle


I don’t know very many people who don’t have a Facebook account. And everyone who does have one seems to be using it more and more. That is, all but educators, since Facebook is blocked in many schools, as are other social networking sites. But that doesn’t mean that students aren’t on Facebook and Twitter. Not having access in school doesn’t seem to stand in their way one tiny little bit, digital natives that they are. Some educators and parents bemoan the fact and are concerned about the impact of technology on children’s brains; others seem to be cheering the arrival of a new venue for community building. And the messages from the scientific world are mixed as well.

A multi-site study recently published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking (yes, there is such a journal) involved measuring physical and psychological responses of people while they were using Facebook. What the researchers found is that Facebook use evokes a very positive state. The reaction was statistically significantly different from a relaxed state (positive but low arousal) and was also different from a stress state (high arousal but negative). This kind of positive state is sometimes referred to as Flow. So, Facebook can get us into Flow and that is a good thing and we should all do more of it, right?

Well, another study came to a very different conclusion. A study published in Psychological Science found that people with low self-esteem don’t fare as well on Facebook as others. While it seems perhaps counterintuitive after all, on Facebook, even shy people can interact without being face-to-face  the researchers found that what students write on Facebook differs based on their level of self-esteem. People with low self-esteem post statements that are more negative and people like them less because of those posts. Students with low self-esteem may feel safe making personal disclosures on Facebook but that is likely to backfire because of how they are perceived by others.

Of course, these studies are just the tip of the iceberg. However, it is increasingly clear that we, as educators and parents, need to understand the phenomenon and what good and safe practices are so that we can guide our students and children.

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