Scrolling through social media during lectures may not help college students on their exams, but the time they spend on Facebook could actually be preparing them for their future careers.
Looking at friends' updates and seeing the comments and "likes" on their own posts helps make students more confident in their ability to perform job-related tasks when they graduate, found a study set to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
The confidence students get through the vicarious experience and social persuasion of Facebook determines how persistently and tenaciously they pursue their career-development goals, said David (Jingjun) Xu, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at Wichita State University in Kansas.
College students achieve such vicarious experience when they see someone else's successes and failures, the researchers found. For example, seeing a Facebook friend post about earning a professional certificate may encourage another college student to go after a similar achievement.
In addition, social persuasion affects college students' confidence, because they can internalize the feedback and comments they receive about their competency level. [See Related Story: 7 Business Ideas for Entrepreneurial College Grads]
"As a result of the social support of their contacts on Facebook, users feel more related to their contacts, which brings practical benefits for career adjustment in the form of mentorship and feedback," Xu said in a statement.
For the study, researchers surveyed 260 college students between the ages of 17 and 24 who were active members of Facebook. The students' majors ranged from those offered at professional schools (such as paralegal studies, medical assistants, web design and computer graphics) to those offered at universities (such as business administration, computer science, psychology and philosophy).
The survey featured questions related to students' confidence in achieving academic goals, learning new skills, succeeding at job-related endeavors and effectively performing job-related tasks.
The study's authors discovered that viewing friends' status updates allows college students to learn from their observed social models and reflect that proficiency and social growth in their own posts. That, in turn, leads to more likes and comments, which feeds the cycle of improved confidence, the authors said.
Xu said the results should help alleviate some of the concerns about a negative impact from social media on academic performance and productivity.
"The research is relevant, as current college students remain the heaviest users of Facebook compared to any other age groups," Xu said.
The study was co-authored by Anna Argyris, an assistant professor at Michigan State University.