Teaching From Our Research Center

Educators Say Social Media Hurts Their Colleagues’ Social Skills. Their Own? Not as Much

By Arianna Prothero & Alex Harwin — March 28, 2024 3 min read
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Educators have a pretty bleak outlook on how social media is affecting their students’ social-emotional skills and overall well-being. And that bleak outlook carries over to their adult colleagues as well, at least in part.

But are their perceptions of social media’s harmful effects off-base?

A recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center asked educators how they thought social media affected their students, their colleagues, and themselves. And there’s some evidence from the survey that educators are judging others more harshly for their social media use than they’re judging themselves.

But before we get to that and why it matters, let’s first look at how teachers, principals, and district leaders think social media impacts high school students’ social-emotional skills—such as their ability to interact with peers and think for themselves.

As the following charts show, roughly 9 out of 10 educators say that social media has had a negative impact on how students communicate and how they treat others. And a whopping 97 percent of educators say that social media contributes to groupthink among their students.

The responses come from a nationally representative sample of 595 educators, who participated in a survey administered from Dec. 21, 2023 through Jan. 2, 2024.

Treating others with respect, learning how to communicate, and developing an identity or sense of self are all part of social-emotional learning.

High school students in a separate EdWeek Research Center survey paint a very different picture of the effects social media has on them. They are more likely to see benefits, such as opportunities to develop hobbies, learn about career paths, find mentors, and learn about other cultures.

Part of the discrepancy between students’ and educators’ perceptions about how social media is affecting the former might be because teenagers aren’t fully aware of how much social media is impacting them. As Common Sense Media’s Merve Lapus said in a recent story for Education Week, today’s middle and high school students have grown up with social media. They don’t know what it feels like not to have it, while many educators do remember a—many would argue simpler and better—time before social media.

But maybe part of what’s at play here is the human tendency to see others’ faults more clearly than our own.

Consider the following chart: when the EdWeek Research Center asked educators how social media impacted their own social-emotional and communication skills and their colleagues’ skills, survey respondents were more likely to say social media had a neutral or positive effect on their own behavior and a negative effect on their peers’. This begs the question, are educators (and let’s face it, probably all adults, but EdWeek didn’t survey non-educators) just more likely to see the negative impacts of social media on their peers and students than on themselves?

Why does this matter?

First, these data prompt the question of whether adults are being truly clear-eyed about the extent to which social media is damaging to kids. This is not to say that social media doesn’t harm kids—there are studies suggesting that it does. One common criticism of social media is that addictive design features, for example, may keep kids on their devices to the detriment of their sleep and mental health. But it serves no one to make the problem out to be worse than it is or ignore the full picture, such as the benefits teens say they derive from using social media.

Second, experts say an important part of teaching adolescents how to use social media productively and respectfully is to model that behavior, and adults aren’t always good at doing that. If an educator is oblivious to the ways social media is affecting their own social-emotional and communication skills, then they are probably going to struggle with modeling healthy social media habits.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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