Talk about confirmation bias (or ageist clickbait)! This headline in the Education Week blog (which also headlined Ed Week’s email newsletter) is a great opportunity for a media literacy discussion, in school or over dinner at home: “Social Media is ‘Tearing Us Apart,’ Middle and High School Students Say.”
The headline makes for a good media literacy lesson, too, for more reasons than one, though the reporting under it is better. One thing the blog post reveals is the other half of the question students were asked: “…more than bringing people together,” the responses to which may also reflect the prevailing feeling about social media in the news and societies around them.
So while the headline might suggest to some people that there is some sort of consensus among US middle and high school students that social media is tearing them apart, the percentage of respondents who agreed with the question was 56%. The possibility that 44% feel it’s “bringing people together” makes the response – and any ensuing discussion – more interesting and less scary. Along with other, less fraught, poll results, it points to the complexity of socializing online and offline, as well social media effects (more on that here soon).
Scientific, no; insightful, yes
But before I go to the other findings, a word about where the data came from: a questionnaire that teachers around the world could use for class discussion and getting “insights on how their students view social media,” EdWeek.org reports. The “survey” was created by ed tech company Kahoot in partnership with nonprofit media ratings, education and lobbying group Common Sense Media (here are examples of these gamified “polls”). EdWeek doesn’t say how many teachers used the questionnaire but reported that “447,330 middle and high school students…around the world” were involved. Kahoot claims “players in more than 200 countries,” “97% of the Fortune 500,” and “more than 50% of U.S. teachers” use its games and quizzes. So, though this is far from social science, the results are interesting and it was probably a useful classroom tool.
So bere are some of the other findings from participating classrooms. I’ve listed them below with some ideas for ways to think about the students’ responses:
- Hanging out with phones out: “About a quarter of U.S. students who took the survey agreed with the statement, ‘When you’re hanging out with friends, it’s okay for everyone to be on their phones,” while about 60% disagreed,” EdWeek reports. This was a leading question, no? Doesn’t it sound like, right in the question, value is being placed on everyone not being on their phones? And even if not, can there realistically be an anywhere, anytime answer to that question? What if a group agrees that it’s fine to be on their phones together in a certain situation? What if everybody’s using their phones to watch a video they were talking about, to participate in a videochat, to watch a game being livestreamed or an important event unfolding in the news, to contact their parents for a ride after a film?
- Ghosting etiquette: “A third of students said that if you ‘don’t want to text someone anymore, it’s okay to just ghost them,’ compared with more than half who disagreed with that statement.” In a lot of cases, ghosting – avoiding or ignoring someone without explanation – can be really mean, but in all cases? What if the person themselves is being mean, or you just realized they’ve been taking advantage of you? Is there any one right answer to this question? So the discussion that follows would be much more informative than the data point.
- The news in social: “More than half of students surveyed – nearly 54% – said social media is a good place to stay up-to-date on the world’s news, while about a quarter disagreed.” The numbers only indicate that they’re smart. The factuality of this statement depends on the source of the news in social media, right?
- Another one for media literacy: “31% said it was okay to share something on social media, even if it’s not true, if it is funny and you like what it says” – a clear call for media literacy discussions about labeling what you share, or explaining why you’re sharing it.
- A social literacy question: “Nearly 43% agreed that, when you find ‘mean, hateful, or abusive content’ online, it’s best to ignore it. Roughly the same percentage disagreed.” Yes, in some situations, for example, when the witness feels they could be bullied at school if they say something. No, in other cases, when they have a peer group that would support and join in this “upstander” behavior, as the bullying prevention field calls it. Knowing the right answer depends on the individual, the peer group, the school culture, the situation, etc. More than anything, this illustrates the need for social-emotional learning in schools (in all of society, actually, but at least let’s start with K-12 education) so that students can gain the self-knowledge and skills that would help them know how to respond in different sorts of situations.
- Goes with the territory?: “More than a third agreed with the idea that ‘people should accept that seeing offensive or threatening content is just a part of being online.’” Half disagreed. Think about that half. They are to be commended for not wanting to put up with offensive or threatening content – maybe for wanting to do something about it. Let’s teach them the skills – with media literacy and social literacy (SEL) education!
- Well-schooled by us!: Some 80% agreed that “’some people think too much about their social media posts, and are always trying to be perfect,’ while just over 10% disagreed. This is a credit to their generation, right? Back in 2014, when teen Snapchat use was picking up steam, I wrote about “self-presentation fatigue” – how some teens were getting tired of the performative nature of some platforms and moving to apps like Snapchat where they could just be themselves with good friends and not worry about a “public image.” They’re doing this with “finstas” in Instagram too. They have their regular accounts that anyone, including parents and prospective employers, can see and then their “fake” accounts just for engaging with friends. And there’s much more to this question too – what popular culture says about how we should look, what we need to measure up to, what success is, the perfectionism they’re sometimes saddled with. Part of that 80% response could cover any of that too, right? Yet we have told our children for years, at home and in Internet safety lessons, that what they put on the Internet “is there forever,” so they are well-schooled in perfecting their public image online – for peers, us and future prospects. Our hearts go out to them, right?
EdWeek.org adds that “about a third” of U.S. students agreed that it was “okay to post a version of yourself on social media that’s not 100% real.” So how did the survey – more importantly, how do the students – define “real”? And how smart (or compliant?) that cohort of respondents could be, since for at least a decade, in conversations about “digital reputation,” we’ve been telling them to put their best foot forward online – and we do that too, right?
What all this indicates more than anything is the complexity and ambiguity of negotiating social life with social media in the mix and that it’s hard for numbers to show how individual, situational and contextual social decisions are. It also suggests that the digital part of social is just as challenging, for teens and all of us, as the non-digital parts of social life. Because it’s not a new or separate challenge. It’s just part of social life. So if we want to have insightful conversations with teens that are meaningful to them too, it would help to treat it as such – not, for example, as online safety or digital citizenship education. Social-emotional learning is more relevant, but what they need and deserve most is good communication with respect and plenty of open-hearted listening on the adults’ part.
- From the “quantitative” to the “qualitative”: Check out this collection of accounts (in MIT Technology Review) from 6 US teens and young adults of the good and bad of having and not having access to the Internet and social media.
- Wherein Vox.com reports that, “As the world burns — impeachment! natural disaster! World War III? — teens turn to TikTok.” On the other hand, the main headline is: “TikTok never wanted to be political. Too late.”
- Yesterday I had the privilege of watching the just-released documentary film Us Kids about the student activists who survived the mass shooting at their school in Parkland, Fla. It captured their perspectives, not those of the adults around them (though it showed the support as well as skepticism and tolling of adults) and illustrated the activists’ intelligence, honesty, pain and healing processes. Here‘s a thoughtful review at IndieWire. Something that activist Emma Gonzalez said at the end of the film was, “Everything’s connected.” We later see during the credits that Greta Thunberg was inspired by the group’s “Road to Change” bus tour and work in the summer of 2018.
- Some child rights activists worry about the loss of childhood; on the other hand, Kate Eichhorn, a professor at The New School and author of The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media, suggests that social media – and more specifically, constant visual documentation and photo-sharing of childhood (by children and their elders) – may be making it “impossible to grow up.” See an excerpt of her book at Wired.com.