I love social media. Not all of it. I’ve been off Facebook for just about a year, and I have enjoyed the time away. But I love Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn. I like these platforms better because they are more public facing than Facebook, which tends to narrow to people I know personally. I like speaking with people I don’t know–especially colleagues in teaching. I have spent over 30 years heavily focused on teaching, so it makes sense that I want to talk often with other teachers about our work.
But, social media has some major negatives. It is addictive and it limits our ability to be critical thinkers.
I have taught a college-level course of my own design called “Reading Social Media” four times, and in doing so, I have learned a lot about how social media works and how it affects people. Social media can be very, very good: It has helped stop political coups in many countries; it has helped to capture fugitives from the law; it has helped people who are lonely and isolated to connect to other people; and, most importantly, it has become a powerful tool for social justice.
But–and this is a big but (I cannot lie): The negatives of social media are also very powerful. We live in a county that is now teetering on the brink of possible (very unlikely) collapse as a result of a pandemic run wild and a president intent on staying in power. Largely that is because people have been encouraged to reject facts and to believe lies.
Two Simple Ways to Defeat Social Media’s Negatives
There are two easy ways to defeat the negative effects of social media. Please teach your students (and learn yourself) to take advantage of these two opportunities to ensure social media’s influence on you stays within your control.
- Turn Off Notifications to Eliminate Social Media’s Addictive Properties
Scientists have learned a LOT about how the brain works in the past few decades. The brain is basically a holder for chemicals that make us happy and engaged or depressed and isolated. One of the primary ways people become happy and engaged is when the brain signals the body to send a dose of “dopamine” to itself. Dopamine makes us happy. It’s exactly like taking a drug.
Everytime our smart phone or computer sends us a notification, our brain sends us a little shot of dopamine. And, we all like it. Soon, we become dependent upon that hit, and then we need more to give us the same amount of pleasure.
Before long, we are literally drug users looking for the next hit. And social media obliges by sending us more and more notifications, each of which gives us a little hit, a little high. Our dependence and tolerance increases, and again social media is there to up our supply.
Before long, each of us is addicted to our social media notifications. This is bad for two reasons:
- We want and get more and more notifications
- We increase the problem below, which is we get more and more narrow in our worldviews.
Turning off your notifications–for social media, including work emails when you’re not officially working–will disrupt this drug-addiction effect. This way YOU control when you check your social media and email. It’s your call, not the social media platform’s call.
2. Do Not Accept All The Recommendations You Receive, and Do Follow/Click Others to Keep Your Critical-thinking Skills Sharp
Social media has done us a tremendous favor by helping us to scour the vast internet for exactly what we are looking for. When we type “Pizza Delivery,” the platform will show us the closest Pizzerias to us because we have allowed it to know our location. That is an incredible service. It saves us hours and hours of searching.
However, that advantage comes with a HUGE disadvantage: It narrows our world.
The algorithms that show us the things we are most likely to want also PREVENT us from seeing the things that are outside our preferences. That means we are less and less likely to encounter information that conflicts with what we already know. Eli Pariser warned us about these in a 2011 Ted Talk on “filter bubbles,” and was right!
When we look up something like “Is Climate Change Real?” we will be shown articles that we are most likely to already agree with. That means we are unlikely to learn anything new. We will become more and more entrenched in our own views.
In this way, social media is a machine that just keeps telling us again and again and again: You are Right! What you already think is absolutely Correct! There is no need to think about this anymore. You can stop thinking now.
And guess what. We DO STOP THINKING.
This wasn’t necessarily planned, but is rather an extremely unfortunate, even dangerous side-effect of an otherwise excellent social media service.
One way to stop social media from becoming our personal Anti-Critical-Thinking Machine is to undermine the recommendations. Don’t always follow them. Instead, choose different paths. Regularly read sources you might not choose to read. Follow people who’s views are very different from your own.
You don’t read and follow things you disagree with because you want to agree with them. Rather, you want to tell the social media platform’s algorithm that you are a smart person who can tell yourself what is right and what is wrong. By not following the recommendations, you are quite literally telling the platform not to do your thinking FOR you. You’ll do your own thinking, thank you very much!
Social Media is a Tool for Us: We Are Not a Tool for It
We have given ourselves over to social media. It must become the other way around. We must bend social media to our will. The best way to do this is by eliminating its addictive properties by turning off notifications and resisting its mind-closing effects by undermining the recommendations social media offers us.
Teach your students that they are in charge of their brains. Not the internet.