The Teen and Social Media Debate

The digital and social networking life of teenagers has had its share of debate in the press and other forums lately. Is all this online socializing really creating a generation of people who cannot empathise and communicate? Or do the benefits outweigh the costs in this trend towards a digital arena of communication?

“New technologies always provoke generational panic … which usually has more to do with adult fears than the lives of teenagers.” (Clive Thompson, Guardian, Oct 2013) It is certainly true that every generation has new technology that the older generation decries as being destructive of the existing order – whether it be the telephone, the radio, or television. All of these inventions have proven to have both costs and benefits and one needs to keep this in mind when debating the social media world for teenagers.

On the one hand, researchers publish reports ‘proving’ that teenagers today have a shallow and trivial culture, are unable to socialize face-to-face or develop empathy, and have lost the ability to detect nonverbal emotional cues. (Others would argue that emoticons in online texting carry greater weight and agreed-upon meanings than many culturally-based nonverbal clues!) Much of this ‘research’ is based on small samples with so many other variables that are ignored that it remains speculative rather than conclusive. Other researchers can just as convincingly show that most teenagers are using social media to augment their offline social lives rather than replace it. Many use their online networks to arrange face to face meetings or gatherings, and once they are older and have greater freedom of movement outside the home, most find their offline socializing starts to increase significantly, for obvious reasons.
Educators frequently bemoan the fact that students today cannot form coherent thoughts or repeatedly use casual ‘textspeak’ inappropriately in formal writing.  A Stanford University researcher who investigated the impact of texting on first-year university students’ writing interestingly found that, going back to the beginning of the 20th century, very little had changed in terms of rates of errors. Clearly there are other variables at play in what affects student writing. What has also been established, is that students are writing about far more complex subjects, backed up by evidence from web research – a far cry from the “what I did this summer” offerings of the past. Because the Internet has increased access to information, schools need to focus on students’ ability to gather and evaluate it effectively, which is possibly far more important than textual errors which various software applications can ‘fix’ at the touch of a button. More importantly, writing with an online audience provides a far more authentic context for stimulating writing than the old ‘write a thank you letter to an aunt or friend’ model.

Reading is the other area of concern – instead of reading books, students spend hours reading text messages and Facebook trivia. But it was television that primarily affected reading behavior, and unlike television, online activity still involves active reading as opposed to passive visual consumption. In fact, students today probably read more than any generation before them, but they read different things – some of it good, some of it less so. In the same way, in the past, many teenagers only read photo-comics rather than good literature unless they were somehow encouraged to do so by inspiring teachers and parents.

Finally, as with all new trends and technologies, adults need to scrutinize their own behavior when it comes to usage, as well as set boundaries around time spent online, as with any other distraction or interest. But it doesn’t benefit anyone to ban social media and technology use in and out of the classroom – the cost of that in the world of tomorrow is far greater than any benefit. Of course this will provoke reactions from both sides – feel free to use the Comments button below to vent your own views! You may also want to set this as a topic for debate in the classroom or even the staffroom….

Categories: Technology Trends

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