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Social Media and the Election

In the wake of the US election results, many of us are left shaking our heads and picking up our jaws off the ground. What just happened? I’m not going to go on a political tirade here. That’s not what this post and site are for. It is a sounding board to promote and share the use of technology and pedagogical approaches to enhance, improve, and transform education. That’s what I will ponder here in context of the US election results.

I was just reading this National Public Radio (NPR) article called, “Did Social Media Ruin Election 2016?” I highly recommend reading it. When you’re done reading it, please don’t take up arms against social media and suggest avoiding it or banning it. Yes, social media has had an influence in dividing nations, creating more partisanship, and breeding hate, but social media in-and-of itself is not ultimately the problem. The problem is in education.

21st Century Learner by Giulia Forsythe on Flickr

21st Century Learner by Giulia Forsythe on Flickr

In our processes of teaching critical thinking and recognizing bias and fallacy through traditional resources and discussion methods, we need to help students apply these same skills in their use and consumption of social media content. It may seem that student social media use and consumption is out of our domain, but it’s not. This election has shown us how our own and others’ use of social media can affect us.

In our curricula and daily lessons we need to have students consider social media as a source of information. For them, it’s probably their biggest source of information. Have students consider who/what they follow/like, and why. Have them reflect upon and evaluate others’ and their own social media posts. Teach them to become fact checkers and meme busters. In general, facilitate discussions about what they see in their social media feeds and connect it to your curriculum.

With social media, we actually have an opportunity to make the world a better place. As this student wrote in this 2014 post about “The Power of Social Media”:

“…the Internet gives youth so much freedom. We now have a relevant voice because of social media. Granted, there are a lot of youth who don’t really know how to use that voice for the right reasons yet. In fact, I’m still figuring it out myself. Instead of discouraging youth in our use of the Internet, I think people should start encouraging us to use it for the right reasons instead of the wrong ones.”

As educators, we need to be at the front line to start teaching and encouraging our students to use social media for the right reasons instead of the wrong ones. Even if you don’t feel adept with the technical ins and outs of social media, that’s ok. You don’t need to be an expert with the technology. You just need to be the thinking expert. Start to use social media in your class. Jump into the fray and teach the students in situ. Let’s students teach you the technology while you teach them how to use it responsibly and effectively.

In my years as an educator, the biggest issue I’ve seen is students’ lack of ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one course or context to another. We can’t assume that they will transfer the critical thinking skills they learned in a recent unit the next time they open their Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or other online newsfeeds. They need explicit opportunities to apply these in class. Please take opportunities to do this. Our future may depend on it.

Cognitive Impacts of Social Media and Digital Devices

As an educator that works both in educational technology and teaching psychology, I have a natural infinity for the intersection between technology and psychology. One area of this intersection that interests me is the impact social media has on us cognitively.

Image Licensed from Shutterstock

Image Licensed from Shutterstock

Interesting research exists about the impacts social media has on attention and emotions. In regards to attention, the research tends to focus on the issue of multitasking. What we are actually doing is not multitasking, but task-switching, which is switching from one task to another very quickly. Many people these days have multiple windows open on their computer and have their smartphone nearby while they work. Social media sites are often open on both devices, especially with today’s students. This issue has been the main culprit in the increase in task-switching. Research is showing that our brain doesn’t really have the capacity to multitask or task-switch. There are biological reasons for this. As this article explains,

“Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens.”

Maybe the brain will evolve its capacity to be an efficient multitasking machine like a computer, but until then, which will be way beyond our lifetime, multitasking should be considered a bad habit because of these reasons and the negative impacts they bring on our ability to focus our attention.

In the realm of emotion, fascinating research exists about how constant use of digital devices is affecting our ability to read emotions in the real world. A 2014 study done by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that sixth graders who went 5 days without access to any screens (mobile, computer, or TV) showed a better ability to read human emotions than peers who continued their digital screen habits. The conclusion was that we, especially kids, can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues through digital devices. We can only learn those through consistent face-to-face interactions with other people.

The recommendations for both of these cognitive impacts wouldn’t be to abandon our digital devices completely. Turning them off when we really need to focus on a task is usually a good approach. Otherwise, finding a balance and using devices in moderation would be the best approach.

This post is cross-posted here.

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