Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Classroom Technology Opinion

Social Media’s Like Tossing a ’Tween the Keys to a Harley

By Rick Hess — July 28, 2021 4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Not too long ago, I took my first plane flight in more than a year, heading out to Salt Lake City to help launch a new statewide civics push in Utah. It was good to be somewhere different and it was really good to actually engage with a room full of strangers, appreciate how body language and inflection can soften a pointed rejoinder, and just interact with live people rather than pixels.

It’s funny how the sights, sounds, and presence of those people can help remind you that they’re real and not just one-dimensional beings against a fake background on a Zoom call or disembodied characters in a social-media post. It can change your behavior, too. I think it’s a whole lot harder for us to rant or work up spittle-flecked rage at people when they’re in front of us. When we see one another and talk to one another, a certain baseline empathy tends to kick in.

Those impulse checks are in short supply when things are virtual. As a result, it’s easy to lash out, for others to lash out in response, and for us all to wind up nursing bitter, festering contempt for cartoon versions of people we don’t actually know.

Sonny Bunch flagged this past May how a frustrating technical glitch in Amazon’s search algorithm gave rise to right- and left-wingers alike rushing to insist that there was an attempt to silence them. While Big Tech certainly deserves careful scrutiny for some suspect goings-on, it was pretty readily shown that there was nothing here beyond even-handed ineptitude. Yet, even as that was being sorted out, Bunch noted, online warriors “started putting together comprehensive indexes of prohibited books.”

Reflecting on the whole thing, Bunch observed, “We have built echo chambers that perpetuate falsehoods and designed defenses to keep the truth out . . . We’ve done a great job of building up silos for ourselves—comfortable places that echo and amplify our opinions. But the thing about a silo is that it radically restricts your view of the world.”

This silo construction is trickier, messier, and less successful when you’ve got to physically interact with people. Online engagement allows you to much more readily find the like-minded, reduces the inhibitions that check our nastiest impulses, and scrapes away all the complexity that marks in-person interaction. I think we’ve all accumulated endless instances of this. I don’t know how many times a friend or colleague has said to me, “I kind of regret sending that now. I’d never have said that in person, but I was so angry I just fired it off.”

In theory, social media could foster a culture of inquiry and debate. Whether or not that was the case two decades ago, it’s certainly not the online world of today. What we have instead is what Scott Alexander has described as an “echo culture,” where people gather in ideological communities that serve to amplify outrage and groupthink.

This is a poisonous state of affairs, one which literally hard-wires our brains in ways that make it harder for us to feel empathy, understand different views, or find points of commonality with those outside our silo.

When I talk this way, I inevitably hear from educators who tell me I’m selling social media short. They tell me how they like having their students engage on social media as a resource or a forum.

I get it. Every technological advance, from the automobile to the television, brings with it both the good and the bad. Technology tends to make life easier and more connected, even as it exacts a price. That’s why conversations about new technologies, from drones to vaccines to self-driving cars, often focus on determining who should use them, when, and under what circumstances.

All of us would benefit from more of that when it comes to social media. More efforts to discipline ourselves as to how often we’re on and the kinds of things we write would be all to the good, as would taking concrete steps to emerge from our silos and finding more opportunities to engage in person with people who see things differently.

But, specifically when it comes to youth, I think parents and schools would benefit from thinking about social media not as a few apps embedded in a ’tween’s phone but as sophisticated, double-edged tools that we should learn to use carefully and deliberately. I’m not simply talking about helping students learn to spot fake news or avoid obviously inappropriate content but about helping them build the muscles of personal engagement that otherwise atrophy online.

Social media tends to reward outrage and certainty. It has little use for empathy or nuance. It may nonetheless be a valuable tool (though I have my doubts). Be that as it may, it increasingly seems to me that our approach to helping youth navigate all this is a lot like tossing the keys to a motorcycle to an 11-year-old and saying, “Remember, look both ways and drive safe.”

We can do a lot better.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Transform Teaching and Learning with AI
Increase productivity and support innovative teaching with AI in the classroom.
Content provided by Promethean
Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology What Do Teachers Want From Learning Management Systems? We Asked
The use of learning management systems is almost ubiquitous, but educators say there's still lots of room for improvement.
4 min read
Illustration of laptop with checklist on the screen
In interviews with Education Week, educators described what features their ideal learning management system would have.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Classroom Technology Computer Science Education Is Gaining Momentum. But Some Say Not Fast Enough
The number of students taking computer science education courses continues to increase modestly, but not fast enough for some.
3 min read
In this 2015 photo, third grader Iyana Simmons works on a coding exercise at Michael Anderson School in Avondale.
Girls are largely underrepresented in high school computer science courses even though overall participation is increasing.
Nick Cote for Education Week
Classroom Technology Q&A How Technology Should Influence Learning for This Generation
A seasoned ed-tech expert puts student engagement, equity, and the tech-curriculum connection high on her priority list.
10 min read
edtech sept 2022 q&a
F. Sheehan/Education Week and Getty Images
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center What Teachers Really Think About Their Learning Management Systems
Adoption of the technology took off during the pandemic, leading to almost ubiquitous use.
9 min read
edtech sept 2022 learning management
F. Sheehan/Education Week and Getty Images