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Social Media Use Linked to Low Math, Reading, Science Performance

Fifteen-year-olds who play online video games score above average in math, reading, and science, while those who engage in social networking tend to score below average, according to an analysis of international assessment data. 

The study, conducted by Albert Posso, an associate professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, and published this week in the International Journal of Communication, looked at about 12,000 Australian students' results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment

PISA is administered every three years to 15-year-olds from dozens of countries around the globe. The tests measure students' knowledge and application of skills in the three subject areas. Students also answer survey questions about a variety of topics, including their internet use.

"Children who regularly use online social networks, such as Facebook, tend to obtain lower scores in math, reading, and science than students who never or hardly ever use these sites," the study found. For example, a student who uses social networks daily scores 20 points lower in math than a student who never uses social media (the average math score in Australia for 2012 was 504 points).

And the more students use social media, the worse their scores tend to be.

Gamers Get High Scores

However, playing video games is associated with higher math, reading, and science scores on PISA, the study found. Students who played online games almost every day scored 15 points above the average in math and reading. In science, they scored 17 points above the average. 

"This may be because many online games require players to solve puzzles that, in turn, require some understanding of these three subjects," Posso writes. At the same time, "it could be argued that people who are good at math and reading also enjoy games that allow them to employ (or even sharpen) these skills."

At some point, though, the positive correlation begins to wear off. Students who play almost every day do better than those who play every single day (and also better than those who play just once a week). 

In November, I wrote about another PISA analysis finding that boys do better with computer-based reading than print-based reading, with the opposite being true for girls. The researchers said that might be because boys are more likely to play video games than girls (and therefore be more comfortable with computers). 

In looking at any analysis of PISA, though, it's important to remember that the test results themselves can't explain causation. That is, the data show that video game playing and higher performance are linked, but they don't tell us why. (The report does describe gaming as having a "positive effect" on scores or "increasing" them, which may be misleading.)

So while the recent study does offer some valuable information, it's probably not the best idea to simply start requiring all 15-year-olds to play video games almost every day, or to ban them from using social media. More research is needed to determine exactly why the variables are linked.


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