Date Published: May 28, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Ivan Smirnov, Jichang Zhao.
The Internet provides students with a unique opportunity to connect and maintain social ties with peers from other schools, irrespective of how far they are from each other. However, little is known about the real structure of such online relationships. In this paper, we investigate the structure of interschool friendship on a popular social networking site. We use data from 36, 951 students from 590 schools of a large European city. We find that the probability of a friendship tie between students from neighboring schools is high and that it decreases with the distance between schools following the power law. We also find that students are more likely to be connected if the educational outcomes of their schools are similar. We show that this fact is not a consequence of residential segregation. While high- and low-performing schools are evenly distributed across the city, this is not the case for the digital space, where schools turn out to be segregated by educational outcomes. There is no significant correlation between the educational outcomes of a school and its geographical neighbors; however, there is a strong correlation between the educational outcomes of a school and its digital neighbors. These results challenge the common assumption that the Internet is a borderless space, and may have important implications for the understanding of educational inequality in the digital age.
The Internet creates unique opportunities for people to connect with each other. It may, therefore, be significantly beneficial for its users because social ties are known to play a significant role in human well-being including life-satisfaction , health [2, 3], and professional development [4, 5]. There is growing evidence that these findings apply not only to offline social ties but to online friendship as well [6, 7]. This role of the internet may be particularly important for underprivileged groups of people such as students from low-performing schools who lack resources in their immediate environment. Connections with students from high-performing schools might potentially influence their university aspirations , improve educational outcomes , and promote positive behavioral change .
Both for research and policy-making purposes, it is crucial to understand the context in which schools operate. This requirement traditionally means collecting information about school resources and the socioeconomic status of its students. Today, students spend much of their time online , and it may be warranted to consider students’ online environment on a par with their home environment. In this paper, we focus only on one dimension of such an online environment, namely interschool friendship on a social networking site. We find that school position in an online friendship network could explain as much variation in the educational outcomes of its students as their socioeconomic status, indicating the importance of the digital context. Online inequalities might merely reflect existing socioeconomic inequality or rather complement it. In particular, it is not known if students from different schools who are friends on VK know each other offline or these connections are only virtual. Future research is required to clarify this relationship.