Social media may have to reconsider its reputation as the great equalizer: according to a new study, college students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than their wealthier peers to communicate and share on Facebook, behavior the study's author argues could in turn be detrimental to academic performance and social life.

Purdue University Libraries Associate Professor Reynol Junco surveyed 2,359 college students with an average age of 22 years old to understand how gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status affected their time spent on and usage of the social networking site. The survey participants were asked to estimate how much time they spent on Facebook and what they did during that time. (However, a previous study by Junco showed self-reporting to be an inaccurate representation of the time students actually spent browsing the site.)

facebook usage
The table above lists the frequency with which all the students surveyed said they engaged in different activities on Facebook.

Junco found that students used the site with equal frequency, irrespective of their backgrounds, spending an average of 101 minutes a day on Facebook.

But those whose parents completed a lower level of education -- a proxy for socioeconomic status -- were less inclined to engage in seven of 14 of core social activities on Facebook, including tagging photos, messaging privately, chatting on the site and creating or RSVPing to events, according to the study.

While the study did not determine if there were any activities that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to engage in, what those students are less likely to do on the site is notable, Junco wrote.

“[I]t can be concluded that those from lower SES [socio-economic status] are less likely to use Facebook for exactly the types of activities for which Facebook was created -- communicating, connecting, and sharing with others,” writes Junco. “Failure to connect in these ways could deprive students of the benefits of participation on such sites, such as increased social capital, improved social integration, opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, and improving the technological and communication skills valued in today’s workplace."

While acknowledging that some studies have found increased Facebook usage can harm academic performance, Junco maintains that the socializing Facebook fosters can lead to stronger relationships among students -- ultimately improving their on-campus experience. He explained that the seven Facebook activities that are less popular among students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are all important facilitators of inter-peer communication, and that abstaining from those activities means those students risk not forming as close bonds with others on their campus as they otherwise would.

"Take for example, those students who are from lower SES and how they use Facebook -- they are less likely to use it for communication and connection. Since Facebook is one of the primary communication sources for most college students, these students are at a disadvantage when attempting to build a social support system to help them integrate in their college environment," writes Junco.

Junco further argues that Facebook use can help college students develop more robust ties to the academic community, which could spur them to apply themselves to their studies and lower their chances of dropping out. The researcher found in a previous study that students who used Facebook to check in on friends and share links boasted higher GPAs.

"Using Facebook for communication and connection with fellow students helps strengthen social bonds, which leads to a greater sense of commitment to the institution and to increased motivation to perform better academically," Junco argues in the new study.

"One of the things we know from the retention literature is that students have to feel a sense of connection to the institution within their first three to six weeks, and if they don't feel a sense of connection to the institution ... then they're at risk of not coming back," Junco added in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "The activities they engage in on Facebook -- information seeking, sharing videos, sharing pictures, tagging things -- are a way they also interact with other people."

Other studies examining the link between college students' Facebook use, academic success and social well-being have reached mixed conclusions on how much benefit social media confers to undergraduates. A study published earlier this year, for example, found that Facebook users experienced a boost of self esteem after looking at their own profiles for five minutes, but then performed more poorly when asked to complete a brief math test than groups who hadn't examined their Facebook accounts. The study's author, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Catalina Toma, found the "self-esteem boost that came from looking at their profiles ultimately diminished participants' performance in the follow-up task by decreasing their motivation to perform well," according to a summary of the findings.

A 2011 paper examining how Facebook use affected college students' sense of well-being found variations between younger and older students. "The number of Facebook friends was negatively associated with emotional and academic adjustment among first-year students but positively related to social adjustment and attachment to institution among upper-class students," the researchers, who worked in Assumption College's Psychology Department, wrote in their abstract. "The results suggest that the relationship becomes positive later in college life when students use Facebook effectively to connect socially with their peers."

The Pew Research Center has also found that higher-income adults are more likely to use social networking sites: A December 2012 study found that 48 percent of adults in households earning under $30,000 per year used social media, while 65 percent earning over $75,000 did so.

Gender, more than race or class, ultimately accounted for the greatest difference in students’ activity on Facebook, Junco found in his study. Female students surveyed were more likely than their male counterparts to comment on Facebook; post status updates; and share, tag and browse photos -- a finding that concurs with other research into social media habits.

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