Chewing Gum, Facebook, and Academic Performance
Several recent studies may shed light on a couple of less obvious reasons that some students outshine others. The first, out of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, found that when kids chew gum, their math scores improve. Yes, you read that correctly; gum chewing improves math scores. The subjects included 108 eighth-graders, half of whom chewed gum during math class and while doing math homework. The control subjects attended class and did homework empty-mouthed.
After 14 weeks, the students took standardized math tests, and those on the chewing gum program outscored their non-gum peers and improved their scores by three percent -- a small but significant amount. The students deprived of gum showed no improvement in their scores. Plus, at the end of the study, the gum chewers had significantly higher final math grades compared to the non-chewers. And, teachers noted, the chewing students were more attentive, required fewer breaks, and were much quieter than students who had no gum to keep their mouths busy.
The subjects had gum in their mouths 86 percent of the time they spent in math class and 36 percent of the time they spent doing homework. The study director, Dr. Craig Johnston, thinks the link between chewing gum and brain power has to do with the effect gum has on reducing anxiety. Says Johnston, "Some researchers speculate that a decreased level of stress leads to better focus and concentration, which may explain the relationship between gum chewing and increased focus and concentration...The study demonstrates the potential benefits of chewing gum on academic performance in a real-life, classroom setting with teenagers."
As coincidence would have it, that finding is convenient for the study's underwriter, The Wrigley Company. Though the gum manufacturer might claim the magic is in the gum, other researchers point out that perhaps eating food during class would have had the same impact, and also, that the benefit might have come from the attitude improvement students experienced on being allowed the freedom to chew in class, usually a forbidden activity. One thing that the researchers did note was that the boost in performance did not come from a sugar rush, since the gum used was sugar-free.
Which brings us to our second study.
Research out of Ohio State University found that college students who use Facebook have significantly lower grades than students who don't. The study looked at the GPAs of 219 graduate and undergraduate students and found that those using Facebook maintained GPAs an entire grade point lower than students who didn't use the social networking site at all. Of the subjects, 68 percent used Facebook, and of that group, 65 percent visited the site at least once a day.
Obviously the Facebook users need to chew more Wrigleys. But seriously, why do they have lower grades? Does Facebook kill off brain cells? No, the study found, the Facebook students spent less time studying than their peers who didn't use the site. In fact, they spent a lot less time studying: the Facebook users studied one to five hours a week, while the non-users studied at least 11 hours. But which is cause, and which is effect? The study director, Aryn Karpinski, comments, "Maybe [Facebook users] are just prone to distraction. Maybe they are just procrastinators."
While 79 percent of Facebook users deny that their internet time affects their grades, and while numerous critics have dismissed this study because its design lacks rigor, others do take the results seriously. Dr. Susan Greenfield of Oxford University warns that social networking sites are "infantilizing the brain into the state of small children" because they shorten the attention span and provide continual instant gratification. Another neuroscientist, Gary Small of UCLA, says that spending too much time socializing online decreases the user's ability to read real-life facial expressions or to interpret the emotions contained in subtle gestures.
While on the surface it might appear that both chewing gum and cruising Facebook (or similar sites) have the same effect -- they help users relax -- the fact is that you can chew gum while doing other things; not so Facebook. Plain and simple, students who log onto networking sites during class are bound to miss some of the lecture. Students distracted by news received via the latest online post from their internet buddies and who can't wait to get back to the computer to respond to some tidbit of social news might not be 100 percent focused on the academic content being presented right in front of them.
What does all this add up to? Should chewing gum be prescribed and Facebook use forbidden so that students can excel? First, given that gum, and particularly sugarless gum, can cause health problems such as diarrhea, digestive difficulties, dehydration, and dangerous weight loss, encouraging the habit may not be the best idea. A glance at the Wrigley's ingredient list shows that the gum contains sorbitol, gum base, glycerol, mannitol, natural and artificial flavors, softeners, maltitol, aspartame, acesulfame K, Red 40 Lake, BHT (to maintain freshness) sucralose, and Yellow 6. A fast review of these ingredients reveals at least several potential sources of cancer (BHT, acesulfame K, aspartame) and other serious diseases, not to mention shrunken thymus glands. Plus, constant chewing can lead to repetitive stress of the jaw. If relaxing leads to better grades, there are avenues other than chewing gum that lead to that goal -- exercise, meditation, listening to calming music, for instance. Any of these things can be done at the start of class, and their positive impact extends beyond learning equations faster. If oral occupation really is necessary to achieve stress reduction, at the least students could try sipping relaxing teas or snacking on healthy treats during class, even though the mental-acuity impact of doing so hasn't yet been tested. Perhaps Wrigley's will step forward and fund a study on the benefit of meditation. Or then again, you can always just buy a pacifier.
As for Facebooking, it might be more dangerous to not hook up, given that in the business world these days, social networking has become a principal avenue for making connections. But really, when it comes to networking, the people you meet face to face are likely to be far more beneficial to your career than the people you meet remotely on Facebook. In any case, students need to learn the art of restraint. While a short online check-in daily may do little harm, hours spent visiting Facebook certainly might. And really now, aren't you more likely to learn something useful listening to the lecture at hand as opposed to emailing your closest 8,000 friends on Facebook to tell them you're at the lecture...but not paying attention?