The Pros And Cons Of Student Social Media Use

By Justin Marquis, Ph.D

In “Only Disconnect,” Andrew Reiner, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, lamented the state of American youth, particularly their preoccupation with social media. By the end of his article, Reiner advocated for social media Sabbaths, in which students would disconnect from their networks in order to more deeply engage with each other and their academic pursuits. While there are certainly negatives that can be associated with social media overuse, it is also a valuable part of the way our society functions.

Here are some of Reiner’s negatives about student social media use, counterbalanced by some potential benefits to help educators take advantage of this valuable resource for student learning.

The Negatives of Social Media Use for Students

  • Distraction – In his article, Reiner is talking not about the momentary distraction of an isolated text message, but rather the way in which social media involvement provides an acceptable diversion from intellectual pursuits. Essentially, he is arguing that it is socially safer to stay connected to peers through always-on social media, than it is to put oneself out there by having a legitimate opinion about a serious topic and disconnecting from the social networks long enough to put it out there.
  • Pressure to Conform – Reiner cites examples of students confiding in him that one of the main reasons behind their 24/7 connection is a fear of not keeping up with peers or appearing “like a loser in public,” as one of his students confided in a class journal.
  • Risk Aversion – Reiner is unclear about whether students’ aversion to taking risks is a symptom of social media use or is directly caused by it, but the point is no less important either way. Social media engagement supports a culture of avoidance which operates in direct opposition to the idea that students need to take risks and fail in their academic endeavors in order to become successful innovators.
  • Shallowness – This is an addition to Reiner’s points, but social media does promote a kind of intellectual and social shallowness that could have long-term negative consequences for learners. Twitter, text messages, and other social media tools focus on brief, quick, “shallow” interactions that do not encourage either deep social engagement or intellectual exploration. There is, after all, only so much information that can be obtained in 140 characters. While the option to dig deeper may be present through embedded links in Tweets, for example, there may be little reward in pursuing those connections for students.

The Positives of Social Media Use for Students
While Reiner makes many valid points for negative effects of social media on students, particularly their level of academic risk taking, he fails to acknowledge some very positive effects that might make participation in social media a real benefit for students. While all of these may not be the mainstream ways that students use social media, they are important benefits that can be realized if educators are willing to embrace disruptive technology in their classrooms.

  • Social Constructivism – In the age of Wikipedia, knowledge is increasingly becoming a social construction rather than the domain of an individual expert. Social media provides an easily accessible tool for helping students to work together to create their own meaning in academic subjects, social contexts, or work environments. Social media platforms are regularly used in business to enhance the connections between workers and to allow for seamless collaboration across distances. Supporting the development of this skill for students prepares them for real working experiences.
  • Breadth of Knowledge – While “shallowness” of knowledge and connections was listed as one of negatives of social media, the flipside of that shallowness is the broadness of the knowledge and connectedness that students can experience through social media use. It is now easier than ever to know (or find out) something about almost anything in the world through connected media. Additionally, students can be connected to a broader base of opinions and world views through instantaneous global connections.
  • Technological Literacy – All social media relies on advanced information and communication technologies that seamlessly work to build and support technological literacy. Simply put, one cannot be engaged in deep and meaningful uses of technology without developing the sorts of rich 21st Century skills such as information evaluation, troubleshooting, mediated communication,  and others that will enable connected learners to become valuable contributors to a connected global economy.

All three of these aspects of social media use are excellent matches to employer expectations and help to develop the 21st Century skills that students will need to be successful in a globally connected economy.

What Can the Skeptical Educator Do?
In the post “Taking Advantage of Disruptive Technology in the Classroom,” I proposed several ways for educators to use the power of social media to their advantage to promote student engagement rather than mandating social media blackouts in higher education. Here are some suggestions:

  • Guided Connectivity – Encourage students to use social media to connect to experts outside of the classroom to conduct first-hand research which they can share with the class.
  • Knowledge on Demand – A wealth of static human knowledge and information is available online. Encourage students to provide support for their arguments or to refute your assertions.
  • Covert E-reading – Student can, by some estimates save up to $600 per year through using e-books on their portable devices. While that’s not specifically social media, it’s on the same device.
  • Encouraging Silent Reflection – Through social media platforms, every student can have the opportunity to express their opinion, share insights, or make counter arguments. This can also spark greater conversation in the classroom or in online forums.
  • Lesson Rewind – Instructors can post recordings of lectures online and circulate them via social media, share links to relevant resources, or answer questions via Twitter or other social mediums. All of these can invite deeper learning and support those who learn at different paces or who require remediation.

There is no right or wrong answer about social media in our educational systems. It is an evolving method of communication and one that is only more likely to gain acceptance and prevalence. Rather than rail against it, it makes more sense to embrace it, minimize the negatives and teach students new ways of engaging with social media, their instructors, and each other that will support them in becoming connected learners with the skills to become successful connected workers.