Social media use may improve school engagement

Using digital media may have a positive impact on study motivation if the school supports it. But is there a digital gap between school and the rest of the world?

In his doctoral dissertation, Lauri Hietajärvi examined the relations between digital engagement and academic functioning among Finnish young people. He followed a group of adolescents from Helsinki who were born in 2000 from the beginning of the sixth until the end of the ninth grade of Finnish comprehensive school. He also included some data on the experiences of upper-secondary school pupils and university students.

A key concept in the study was the gap hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, pupils and students who have gotten used to learning through technology outside their school experience lower study motivation than children and adolescents who prefer using traditional tools such as pencils and paper.

While the results of the dissertation appear to support the gap hypothesis, they also indicate that the appearance of the gap depends on a number of factors relating to both the individual and the environment. The gap may form if competence acquired outside academic environments is not recognised at school, but it can also be generated by the adolescents being alienated from the practices of the school and feeling inadequate as students.

Social media can add stress but also support schoolwork

Very intense social media engagement may cause more stress for adolescents, increasing the psychological demands, which may even lead to burnout. This is most commonly the case with young people who are trying to maintain an extensive network of followers, for example as bloggers – which can take as much time and energy as formal employment. On the other hand, even such intense social media use may support schoolwork if it is viewed as a resource and relates to finding, creating and developing new information.

For teenagers, reasonable social media engagement is also necessary for maintaining social connections. It is important that young people learn to control it themselves.

“Instead of outright bans, we should think of ways schools could teach pupils to regulate their own use of social media. For some young people it seems particularly important that the ways they use social and digital media are in line with the practices of the school,” says Lauri Hietajärvi.

Adults should listen to adolescents and be interested in their ways of using technology to be better involved in their daily lives.

Social media use and gaming are not the root cause of school problems

The impact of digital media on school motivation and wellbeing depends on the ways it is used.

In the study, it seemed that the pupils’ study motivation was higher or even increased when they sought information and used digital media in areas that they were interested in. However, interest in school seemed to decrease among pupils who wanted to use technology both outside school and as a study tool at school but who were not given the opportunity.

Among the young people in the study aged between 13 and 16, intense social media use and gaming did not seem to be the root cause of their problems at school. Instead, escaping into technology appeared to be a consequence of the adolescents feeling inadequate at school and not finding school to be interesting.

“When we develop our school system, the solutions we seek should primarily be pedagogical, not technological,” says Lauri Hietajärvi.

“Schools should focus on work methods that increase a sense of purpose for the studies. Practices should be developed by listening to adolescents and examining the innovative ways in which they use technology. Banning mobile devices will not solve the problem. Instead, adolescents should be taught to use them sensibly.”

Lauri Hietajärvi defended his doctoral dissertation entitled Adolescents’ socio-digital engagement and its relation to academic well-being, motivation and achievement at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences on 13 September.