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Scholarly social networking sites not widely used by undergrads: Study

Scholarly networking sites such as ResearchGate and Academia are not widely used by undergraduates, a local study found.

Therefore, it was recommended that undergraduates should be encouraged to have an active account on academic social networking sites as this would help them access authentic documents written by scholars.

This study also found evidence that students’ privacy concerns pertaining to social networking sites were very feeble, with students from the Faculty of Arts and Culture of the Eastern University found to be having the lowest awareness on privacy settings in social networking sites when compared with students from other faculties of the same university. The study, therefore, recommended that users should make the appropriate changes to the privacy settings of their accounts on social networking sites.

The study titled “Awareness on privacy settings in social networking sites among undergraduates in the Eastern University”, authored by J. Lavanya (Eastern University Faculty of Health Care Sciences Assistant Librarian) and S. Santharooban (Senior Assistant Librarian of the same library) was published recently in the Journal of the University Librarians Association of Sri Lanka.

The significant rise on an almost daily basis that is seen in the involvement of undergraduates on social networking sites has led to considerable concerns about awareness of privacy settings, policies, and associated risks, as the users are not aware of the risks associated with neglecting privacy concerns.

Social networking sites have been adopted by nearly everyone in this technological era and its usage has grown exponentially, as it has become a speedy means of effective communication. World statistics have reported an average annual increase of 10% in the total number of users of social networking sites. There are numerous social networking sites – such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Viber, Google Plus, IMO, and Twitter – which have emerged and changed the way people communicate, interact, investigate, and socialise.

Students in the younger generations are more dependent on social media. It has been reported that the majority of social media users are in the student category and that the students are using this to have a network or to interact with friends and classmates, especially on study-related matters, to have discussions on national issues, and often for entertainment-related matters. It has also been found that social media use sometimes distracts students during classroom activities, which in turn results in a negative impact on learning.

Nowadays, students have a lot of opportunities to use their smartphones to capture images and share photos and text to cyber communities through Facebook, Whatsapp, etc., not only with their friends, but also with other cyber communities without considering the security and privacy policies.

The openness on social networking sites brings attention from strangers, which may lead to the online victimisation of users.

Social network sites offer a varied range of privacy settings on different aspects of information disclosure and messaging. These would help users to have control over the profile view and personal information. However, many users are not aware of privacy settings and security concerns. The lack of awareness of privacy settings leads to negative consequences. Every user of social network sites should therefore be aware of information privacy (an individual’s claim to control the terms under which personal information, that is information identifiable to the individual, is acquired, disclosed, or used) in order to avoid negative repercussions.

The lack of awareness on security and privacy settings will lead to detrimental effects such as cyberbullying (allows victimisers to post things pertaining to the victim in front of their peers and to humiliate them), profile hacking, identity theft (additionally, it has become easier for persons to steal personal information on social networking sites and to exploit them in various ways, with identity theft being one such way), photo morphing and social implications such as committing suicide (related teen suicides have been reported in the recent past from Kurunegala, Puttalam, and Batticaloa, where there was evidence that the deaths were the direct result of the victims’ engagement with social media), and ethnic and cultural issues.

  1. Weerasundera in 2014 noted in “The impact of social media in Sri Lanka: Issues and challenges in mental health” that suicides and other mental health problems propagated by social media are considered as issues of global concern and are not confined to Sri Lanka. 

Users can therefore follow certain precautionary practices in order to minimise the risks related to social networking sites.

A.W.V. Athukorala, in her 2018 study “Factors Affecting the Use of Social Media by University Students: A Study at the Wuhan University of China”, highlighted that the major contributing factors for the use of social media are privacy, convenience, and time spent, based on which she pointed out that social network providers should make necessary arrangements to protect user privacy. Athukorala also noted that it is a prime duty of university authorities to incorporate media literacy education into academic curricula for both international students and faculty.

This study by Lavanya and Santharooban was a cross sectional study. A total of 4,634 students from six faculties – Faculties of Agriculture, Arts and Culture, Commerce and Management, Healthcare Sciences, Science, and Technology – of the Eastern University were the population of this study. Stratified random sampling was employed to draw the respondents as it involves the division of a population into smaller sub groups, where gender is also considered as strata. Self-administered questionnaires were used to collect information from the randomly selected undergraduates. The response rate was 95%. 

In terms of the gender-wise distribution of the undergraduates that participated in the study, it was observed that 72.9% were female and 21.9% were male. The study stated that 61.4% and 38.6% of the undergraduates are from rural and urban municipalities, respectively. Since the undergraduate population in the Faculty of Arts and Culture is large, around 50% of the respondents came from this faculty, according to the proportionate sample size allocation, followed by respondents from the Faculties of Commerce and Management, Science, Healthcare Sciences, Agriculture, and Technology. 

As per the usage, WhatsApp dominated other social media among undergraduates who came from rural and urban areas as the most preferred social network site among undergraduates (94.9% males and 96.96% females), which was followed by Facebook (84.7% males and 56.2% females), Viber, Google Plus, IMO, Instagram, and Twitter. 

However, very few students have an account on LinkedIn (8.53%), ResearchGate (4%), and Academia (2.67%). Previously, in 2018, Lavanya and Santharooban had in the “Usage of Online Resources by the Undergraduates Attached to the Faculty of Agriculture of the Eastern University” pointed out that only a few students have an account on ResearchGate (5.4% males and 1% females) and Academia.edu (3.6% males and 3.1% females). 

One of the reasons for this situation, the researchers opined, may be due to the lack of awareness about these sites among students. Another reason, they observed, is that ResearchGate requires an institutional electronic mail in order to set up an account whereas many local universities do not provide an institutional email for students.

The study also analysed the relationship between the types of social network usage and gender, and found that no social networking sites were associated with gender, i.e. social networking sites are equally preferred by each gender.

The present study also revealed that the highest percentages of undergraduates use social networking sites for information sharing (93.07%) and academic purposes (92%), which were followed by for purposes of social interaction (86.13%), entertainment (85.33%), and self-expression (81.87%). The study also revealed that the aforementioned reasons for using social networking sites had significant but small association with gender. The above reasons are, however, more associated with males than females. Moreover, it was noted that more males used social networking sites for self-expression than females, which, the researchers claimed, provides evidence that boys are more likely to utilise social networking sites for self-expression than girls.

With regard to social networking sites, awareness was considered in three aspects: Awareness about privacy policies of social networking sites, awareness about setting privacy and privacy settings, and awareness about the risks of ignoring privacy settings. When awareness was measured using the variable of the awareness of privacy policies, it included statements on the terms of use and the privacy policies of social networking sites, the visibility of personal profile information when ignoring privacy settings, and the sharing of personal information by social networking sites for marketing purposes. When awareness was measured using the variable of the awareness of privacy settings, it included statements on preventing other users from seeing and accessing personal information, blocking unwanted users, and the ability to change privacy settings.

When awareness was measured using the variable of the risks of avoiding and neglecting privacy settings, it included statements on profile hacking, photo morphing, cyberbullying, identity theft, and social implications caused by social networking sites such as suicide as well as ethnic and cultural issues. These statements were in turn checked using a five point scale (ranging from one equals strongly disagree, two equals disagree, three equals neutral, four equals agree, to five equals strongly agree).

Overall, awareness about privacy policies, settings, and associated risks were categorised as 0-49% being considered to be below average, 50-69% being considered to be satisfactory, 70-89% being considered to be good, and 90-100% being considered to be excellent. Awareness about the privacy policies was measured by statements like “I am aware of the terms of use and the privacy policies of social networking sites”, “I am aware that if I haven’t changed my privacy setting, all members of the same network can see my profile”, and “I am aware that social networking sites can share my information with people or organisations outside of the social networking sites for marketing purposes as per their privacy policies”.

However, users accept the privacy policies and grant ownership of their data to social network administrators, either knowingly or unknowingly. It was noted that only 15.5% of the respondents have awareness about the privacy policies at an excellent level. Therefore, the researchers recommended that social networking should be incorporated into the information policy and user education.

The results also revealed that 20.1% and 24.1% of the undergraduates have marked their awareness level of privacy settings at a good and satisfactory level, respectively. Taking into account these results, the university authorities, the researchers observed, should take more concern in enhancing the level of awareness regarding the privacy settings in social networking sites.

It was noted that less than 20% of the students have awareness at the good and excellent levels, on the adverse effects caused by ignoring privacy settings. The authors stressed therefore that the users should have more awareness to protect themselves from organised cybercrimes, identity theft, scams, and malware attacks, adding further that these challenges should be addressed in a proper way so as to avoid the potential loss of private and personal information.

The overall median percentage for awareness about the privacy policies, settings, and associated risks is 58.33%, 66.7%, and 66.7%, respectively. Also, gender does not influence any of the three types of awareness.

The municipality it was found has significant influence only on awareness on privacy settings in social networking sites and in this regard, the urban areas have the highest median awareness (70%) than rural areas (58.6%). The faculty also has an influence only on the awareness of privacy settings in social networking sites. Students from the Faculty of Arts and Culture have the lowest median awareness than other faculties; however, there was no significant difference among the other faculties.

Regarding the training needs that were identified in terms of the social networking sites, the majority of the respondents confirmed that they required training on controlling cybercrimes (51.47%) followed by the use of social networking sites in higher education (48.8%), while 79.17% of the respondents from the Faculty of Agriculture stated that they needed training on how to overcome addiction to social networking sites and around 69.23% and 62.5% of the students from the Faculties of Technology and Agriculture required training on controlling cyber crimes, respectively.

Lavanya and Santharooban recommended that university authorities organise adequate workshops on social network sites and related privacy issues to the undergraduates as it would help them use social networking sites effectively as well as to address issues that arise due to cybercrimes. Furthermore, the duo proposed to encourage teaching professionals to modify the curriculum to integrate social media into learning approaches as more students required training on the use of social networking sites in higher education.