So many social commentators seem to have it in for social media. They blame it for everything and anything – from depression, to our inability to concentrate or interact socially and from narcissism to what is wrong with our young people today.
But is all of that extra true? I mean, we’ve been blaming new technology for the ills in society for a while now. One famous thinker said, “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” But he wasn’t talking about twitter or facebook. Instead Plato (yes, the ancient Greek philosopher) was talking about writing itself. Writing! The thing that we now hold up as one of the most important skills to teach our children!
In 1883 somebody wrote of how general education exhausts “the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” And though no doubt children broadly agree with that assessment, most grownup now think it’s pretty essential children go to school.
I suspect that it won’t be long before social media will be seen the same way.
“But social media is making my kid do worse in school!”
This is a common refrain of many parents. They see their kids on social media and they see report cards with poor grades. They then conclude that the one must lead to the other. The thing is, we don’t actually get to see our kids without social media, so how can we know that it’s true?
Through research, obviously. And it just so happens that Gizmodo reported on one such expansive study (or a meta study in the lingo, which means a study that gathers together all the other studies done so far and analyzes them together).
A group of researcher analyzed 59 other studies, which included 30,000 students, to discover whether there was a relationship between social media and studying. The short answer was ‘barely’. Yes, there was a small negative effect, but this was down to two reasons.
- If students actually had their social media accounts open as they studied they experienced a drop. If they studied without them, the effect disappeared.
- If they self-reported their grades, they experienced a drop. If the study looked directly at their grades, then there was no effect.
Yeah, I don’t know what to make of that second one either. Perhaps students think that social media will hurt their grades and therefore under-report their performance?
Nor was social media responsible for kids studying less. Apparently, the time they spent on social media ate into other activities instead.
Or, to put it in the words of lead author Markus Appel, ““Concerns regarding the allegedly disastrous consequences of social networking sites on school performance are unfounded.”
What kind of activities is it eating into, then?
It turns out that it might be eating into exactly those activities that parents have been railing against for the last few decades. What am I talking about? Drug, fighting, sex, teen pregnancy and drinking.
Young people start drinking later and drink less when they do. Drug use has similarly taken a nosedive, particularly hard drugs. Teen pregnancies, similarly, have been dropping. And this while most countries have become more liberal and easy going about such things.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that these things have been dropping because of social media use. It is entirely possible that the two things are entirely unrelated. It is even possible that social media contributes to making these things worse and other effects – like changes in parenting – are responsible for the downward pressure.
Nonetheless, to run around waving your hands in the air and screaming how social media is ruining our youth seems a little bit overblown. In many regards our young people are better off today than we were a few decades ago.
So is there any case for worry?
Well, yes. The same report I linked to above also says that our children feel more isolated and alone than previous generations. That could be down to social media. After all, virtual contact does not do the same things to us as the face-to-face variety.
This is because we evolved that way. In our historic past we looked each other in the eye when we had a conversation and so, that’s how we feel at our best. For example, just having eye contact will release a whole bunch of chemicals that make us feel better. That’s still very hard to do over social media and therefore translates into greater feelings of isolation and loneliness.
And as evolution moves very slowly, it will probably take a while before we’re capable of enjoying this new form of communication as much.
But add, don’t take away
The solution, however, is not to take the social media away. Instead, it is to add different aspects to their social media life. This can be creating opportunities for your children to physically hang out with each other or with you. This can mean installing set times of day where you are together without the devices.
If you can do this, then you’ll be helping your children build up the cultural anti-bodies they need to use social media responsibly and to learn that it can be used additively instead of as a substitute.
If you go for the other choice and decide to ban it from them, then you might be doing them more harm than social media is doing them. After all, the future is technological. A huge number of jobs and opportunities are going to be online. To ban your kids from accessing these tools means that you’re holding them back. It might not quite be the same as not letting them go to first grade with the rest of their age cohorts, but in the future we might well find that it isn’t that far behind.
A giant experiment
It’s true. Social media is a huge experiment that we’re performing on our kids, of which we don’t know the repercussions. But the truth is, we’ve been doing that generation after generation. Nobody knew what the repercussions of the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone or the TV would be either. And so far, our intelligence has been increasing steadily as each of these technologies has hit (something known as the Flynn effect).
As it looks right now, social media will continue that trend, despite what the doomsayers are shouting. And that’s not too surprising. The doomsayers get paid to shout their doom – and then to share it across their social media.
So follow the numbers. They say social media is fine, within limits. So let’s stop blaming social media and start concentrating on how we can be better parents instead.