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Control Groups

Teenagers’ knowledge can be predicted based on their social media interests.



High school students’ membership in certain social media groups can be used to predict their academic performance, as demonstrated by Ivan Smirnov in his research. The analysis of school students’ membership in groups and communities was used to detect low-performing and high-performing students.

Data from VK

Teenagers’ performance at school can be evaluated based on their digital footprint and their activities in social media, according to the researcher. High achieving children usually subscribe to pages with scientific and cultural content. Lower achieving students are more interested in online humour and horoscopes.

The researcher found the students’ academic performance to correlate with their social media interests on the basis of the Russian national longitudinal study ‘Trajectories in Education and Careers’. The sample included 4 400 students. Their knowledge was measured using PISA, a widely recognized international study. Social media activity was studied using VK, the most popular social network among young people in Russia. About 4,500 groups were selected. The study participants had 54 subscriptions on average.

The PISA study, which is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), allows researchers to assess the level of reading and mathematical and natural science skills and knowledge among 15-year-olds. The list of social media subscriptions reflects the real interests of the school children. Obviously, it does not reflect the complete range of their interests since it is possible to enter the groups as an ‘invisible’ user, without leaving any digital footprint. Nevertheless, social media profiles are a good indicator. This source of information has great potential for educational studies.

Profile by Subscription

Personal pages, posts, photos and comments made by social media users provide a lot of information. Researchers can analyse a person’s lifestyle and psychological profile by using this digital footprint.

For example, researchers found out that a person’s demographics (ethnic identity, gender and income level) can be forecasted following the analysis of their tweets,visual information from their profile,posts,photos of the neighbourhood etc.

According to research, behavior on social media says a lot about an individual’s character and intelligence.

Social media can also be used to ‘test’ academic performance. ‘We have created a simple model that predicts PISA results based on students’ subscriptions to certain groups,’ Ivan Smirnov explained. The results show that there is a strong academic, knowledge-related aspect of teenagers’ online preferences.

Signal function

Ways of presenting information are the same in many groups. Even the most ‘elitist’ and intellectual pages consist of funny pictures, videos, memes etc. The groups are polarized in their themes and contents, and, subsequently, in their audiences.

‘Intellectuals only. Hardcore only’, declares the MHK group in its description. It ‘filters’ the audience straight away. In contrast, groups such as ‘Killing humour’ and ‘Cool gags’ seek a wider range of followers.

Ivan Smirnov’s study revealed segregation among teenagers in terms of their interests and in correlation with academic performance.

Lower-achieving students are usually interested in horoscopes and jokes.

Higher-achieving students visit pages on science, technology, books, and films more often. One could assume that this influences their performance at school and general knowledge. But there is no such data. ‘We do not know whether subscriptions impact school performance, but I tend to think that they do not’, the researcher commented, ‘There are much stronger factors, including predisposition, family resources, level of the school, and so on.’

The author mentioned two effects. Firstly, ‘those who perform better tend to choose something educational, rather than entertaining, online.’ Sadly, the low achievers, who particularly ‘need support, are surrounded by horoscopes and jokes’. Secondly, if we take a closer look at the groups, it’s clear that ‘their content is not educational at all’. This means that the difference is due to ‘self-identity, and that it probably serves as a signal, since the groups in question are public,’ the researcher emphasized.

Total segregation

The researchers detected at least three gaps between groups:

 They have very different interests.

 Their academic achievements are at opposite ends of the scale.

Teenagers use the internet in very different ways. It is possible to talk about digital inequality between school students who are at opposite ends of the scale in terms of academic performance.

This data is in line with the other research about digital inequality. For example, it isknown that less educated people look for entertainment online, while more educated people use the internet as a source of information.

Simple math illustrates the considerable gap in academic achievements.

The difference between the two groups in their knowledge and skills is equivalent to one or two years of formal schooling. If, as OECD does, we take 40 PISA grades to be one year of studies, the gap between the followers of ‘MHK’ and the readers of a love horoscope is two years. The difference in test results between these two groups is 79-88 points.

Predicting power

The researcher compared the real PISA results and the grades calculated on the basis of digital footprint. The model was found to predict the teenagers’ achievements very accurately. ‘Its ability to correctly identify stronger and weaker students is 90% for mathematics, 92% for natural sciences, and 94% for reading,’ the author clarified.

Two groups of students were investigated: those who don’t even have a ‘basic second level, which is necessary for survival in the contemporary world, according to the OECD, and those who achieve one of the two highest levels (fifth or sixth)’.


Author of the study:
Ivan Smirnov, Head of the Laboratory of Data Science Methods in Educational Studies, Centre for Contemporary Childhood Research, HSE Institute of Education


August 28, 2018