Under-Reporting? A Report on Facebook at Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Underclassmen spend more time on Facebook but yet still less time than you would expect

Glancing though the computer terminals in McCabe Library or the dorm lounges, you are almost certain to see the ubiquitous blue background of Facebook, the popular social networking site. Although it may seem like they are always on the site, Swarthmore students self report being on Facebook less frequently than one might expect: only 15 minutes a day.

Freshmen, by far, reported using it at most, an average of 30 minutes a day, compared to 15 minutes for sophomore and five minutes for juniors and seniors.

The results are based on an email survey conducted during the week of Nov 9-15 through the office of Dean Jim Larimore. Some 450 students responded, evenly broken down by class year.

“Facebook is not as important as we [the deans] thought it would be,” said Myrt Westphal, Associate Dean for Student Life.

Larimore said he was surprised and pleased by the statistics, which allayed his fear of “students being obsessed and using the site as a major procrastination vehicle….It was reassuring that students only use the site 15 minutes a day and mainly use it in the evening.”

Facebook is a “benign thing but what role people let it play in their lives is the problem,” Larimore said. “Facebook is not the cause but rather an outlet for procrastinating.”

Students say they spend this online time keeping in touch with both old friends and Swarthmore friends, learning about campus events and viewing pictures. Many reported that Facebook has largely replaced emailing as their primary means of communication because it is so accessible and reliable.

Many students said that they use the site to keep track of, but not communicate, with old friends, a practice known as “stalking.” [Read more on this practice here ] Networking, finding dates and making new friends are less popular ways of using the site.

Some students like freshman Behram Kahn are quite disciplined in their use of the site. “I only check my Facebook account once a day – before bed – for about 15-30 minutes.”

Almost all students, 95 percent, said they had a Facebook profile. Twenty-seven percent reported that they have had one for at least a year, while 37 percent say they have had a profile for two or more. In fact, 20 percent surveyed claim to have had a profile since Facebook started over three years ago.

One senior, JS, explained “that is now essential to have a profile” in order to keep in touch with friends and find out about events.

Facebook. begun in 2004 by Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, quickly spread to the Ivy League and other colleges, then to high schools and ultimately everyone with an email address by late 2005. It gradually developed more uses, including the ability to upload and share pictures

Current seniors were freshmen when Facebook started, making them the first generation to have this form of communication for all their college years, while underclassmen started using it in high school

Forty percent of students said they logged on to Facebook two to four times a day while 18 percent say they used it five or more times a day. However, they report spending only a short time during each session; nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said they spent nine minutes or less each time.

Still, 49 percent said that in total, they spend less than 15 minutes a day on the site while 25 percent said they spend between 15 and 29 minutes. However, the numbers are higher for the freshman class. More than a quarter of the first years, 27 percent, report spending between 30 to 59 minutes on the site while 26 percent say they spend between 15 and 29 minutes.

Westphal is not surprised that freshman use the site more frequently than any other class because they “still have one foot in high school and another in college” and have more people to keep in touch with.

Adam Koshkin ‘11 reported spending about 30 minutes a day on the site. To procrastinate while working on a large paper, he admits, he logs on more often – for his small breaks. For his large breaks, he plays video games.

“Facebook is like a virus taking over my life,” he said.

Sophomore Shaun Kelly calls Facebook a “stress builder” because most of the time he is not being productive. He even mentions that he removed the site from his “bookmarks” in the hopes of decreasing the frequency in which he uses the site, which proved only mildly successful.

However, other freshman like Ariel Martino say their Facebook use has decreased over time, declining as her high school friends made new ones in college. “The first month of college was the ‘peak’ in my use of Facebook,” she said.

Keeping in touch through Facebook, not Email

Several students interviewed after the survey said that they preferred to keep in touch through Facebook rather than email because it’s more informal and more likely to get a response.

“I feel confident my friends will check Facebook but I know they don’t check their phone or email,” said Kelly. Koshkin said he didn’t even bother to learn some of his friends’ email addresses. On Facebook, said freshman Behram Kahn. “I can see my friend’s face” which was a feature he likes.

While 81 percent of students said they use Facebook to communicate with other Swarthmore students, one senior stated that Swarthmore is such a small school that it makes more sense to talk in person rather than through Facebook.

Westphal agreed that Facebook is a “superficial way to get to know someone…and on such a small campus its not necessary to Facebook someone when you’ll see them at Sharples or between classes.”

Melinda Neal ’11 said she sporadically uses Facebook, but prefers face-to-face interaction and old-fashioned handwritten letters, which she uses with her high school friends. “It’s more personal,” she explained.

The one survey question that allowed students to enter their own responses yielded a lot of interesting information about student’s perception of the social networking site. One student alluded to peer pressure: “I think it looks weird if you don’t have a profile.” Said another, “I’d rather not have my unpopularity spread into cyberspace.”

Kate Speer ’08 said that all her friends use the site but she doesn’t because “the concept of having hundreds of ‘friends’ seems fake…it makes the quality of friends go down.”

Speer also objected to the self-focused nature of the site in which students constantly think about how to present themselves in their profile. While she admits the site is useful for keeping in touch with the ever-changing contact information of true friends, Speer has instead decided to assemble her own address book.

Other uses of Facebook

One in two students claim that they use wall posts more than any other feature of Facebook, while 21 percent of students say their most popular activity is posting and viewing pictures. The virtual wall on Facebook’s site is so popular that simply referring to a student’s “wall” will make some students immediately think of Facebook instead of the real wall/white board outside of most dorm rooms.

Overall, 81% of students say they use Facebook to view pictures while 65% use the site to share pictures. Two thirds, 65 percent, say they use the site to advertise and learn about campus events through Facebook invitations and follow-up email messages.

Although using Facebook for dating does not seem to be particularly popular among the whole Swarthmore population, one student did report using the site to “scope out dating prospects” and another said that she uses the site to learn the sexual orientation of male students, which she claimed “is very helpful at parties.”

In addition, others use the site for more logistical reasons such as remembering their friends’ birthdays and looking up their friends contact information (such as phone numbers or email addresses).

How Facebook impacts students’ “offline” lives

According to the survey, Facebook communications do not always carry over into the real world. Half of students do not believe that their interaction on Facebook affects their in-person relationships with Swarthmore friends, a quarter said they are ambivalent on this issue while a quarter do believe that their in-person interaction is affected by communications through Facebook. Seniors, however, are more likely to say that Facebook affects their face-to-face communication. One senior told the story of when many people on campus wished him Happy Birthday when it was not his birthday, and he realized that his Facebook page contained an error.

Similarly, more than 65 percent of students do not believe Facebook plays an important part of their social life at Swarthmore. Dean Larimore stated that he was glad to see that students don’t use Facebook to gossip or otherwise harm fellow students.

Even though most students say that Facebook doesn’t affect their offline lives, it is common to hear comments like, “Why did he/she request me as a friend on Facebook, when we only have one class together?” or “I didn’t know we were already Facebook friends.” Similarly, one junior who wished to remain anonymous observed, “I know people who interact with each other by using only one sentence like on a Facebook wall post…its awkward.”


Are students underreporting their actual time on Facebook?

Westphal said those who only sign on once a day likely accurately reported their time while those that go online more than once a day, probably under reported because its harder to measure the total amount of time.

An example of the under-reporting can be seen during the interview and observation of a one student. The student claimed to use the site only twice a day, although he used the site at least four times in the two hours before, during and after the interview. When questioned about the discrepancy, he cited specific reasons of why he went on the site.

Dean Larimore suggests that people may not count (or may forget) the times they go on the site just to look up specific information. In addition, he thinks people may only “count the time they are actively typing a message on the site but may not count the time they are passively browsing through the website.”

Psychology professor Andrew Ward believes one factor of under-reporting may be a stigma associated with engaging in nonrealistic or virtual interaction on sites like Facebook. He also thinks that, particularly at Swarthmore, people want to seem like they are working on their academic or social action commitments and that “engaging in frivolous pursuit like Facebook may be embarrassing to them.” Furthermore, since there are a lot of opportunities at a small school like Swarthmore to interact in person, people may not want to admit that they use their time to communicate or passively observe others online.

The Dean’s Office Use of Facebook

Since Facebook is so popular amongst students, the Dean’s Office has considered using it as a way of communicating to students. Career Services has already begun to use student peer advisors to send out messages to students

Dean Larimore says that there are no plans yet to communicate with students through Facebook. “We are in the early era of this new technology – so the norms are not known yet,” he said, adding that he understands students would not want the deans reading their profile pages.

Larimore believes that for students, “there are some things you want your peers to see but not necessarily your professors, deans or parents” and he adds that he would have felt the same way when he was a student. So, at least at Swarthmore, there should be no fear of the deans logging onto Facebook.

Overall, Facebook remains quite prevalent at Swarthmore and college campuses across the world.

As one senior said, “Facebook is the new AOL, the new way of keeping in touch!”


  1. I personally try and limit myself to a small number of friends on Facebook at Swat. These are people I interact with on a daily/weekly basis or who are friends. That solves a lot of the awkwardness involved with a “Facebook friendship.” 🙂

  2. It’s probably hard to estimate for an average person how much time he/she spends reading/writing/chatting on facebook. Like with any fun activity, we can lose track of time easily. Sometimes this is good for us.

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