An enquiry into the relationship between social networking site use and primary school children's academic performance and cognition
Young people are extensively using social networking sites (SNS), which has given rise to alarming claims about the effects of SNS use on children’s learning and cognitive development. Most literature, however, has examined the impact of media multitasking on cognition rather than SNS, and has been conducted with university students, with only very limited evidence for primary school pupils. This study fills in this gap by examining the links between SNS use and primary school children’s academic performance and cognition, focusing on attention shifting, sustained attention, and working memory. At the same time, given claims that new technologies may encourage a more dialogic view of thinking, this study also examined whether SNS use is associated with more dialogic ways of thinking and dispositions, a claim which has not been previously empirically investigated.
Adopting a mixed-method approach, the quantitative part involved 576 Year 5 and 6 students in the UK. A child questionnaire was used to assess children’s SNS use and dialogic thinking, while computer-based tasks and teacher ratings in English, Spelling, and Maths indicated executive functions and academic performance respectively. Statistical analyses were performed to identify links between various metrics of SNS use and academic performance, executive functions, and dialogic thinking. The quantitative findings were complemented by interviews with 13 heavy SNS users and 7 primary school teachers analysed thematically.
Statistical analyses indicated negative links between academic performance and various metrics of SNS usage. While the interviews generally supported these findings, it also emerged that SNS may contribute to a broader sense of learning, deepening children’s understandings and honing their communication skills. SNS use also appeared to be positively associated with children’s dialogic thinking and dispositions, potentially due to exposure to multiple views and opportunities for network expansion. Finally, small but statistically significant negative relationships were identified between SNS usage and performance in working memory and attention shifting tasks, with interviewees appearing to associate SNS use with attention problems.