[For those who are not Very Online: a “poast” is slang for a post to social media or other internet forum.]
Social media is a cesspool of anxious status games and polarizing misinformation. Perforce, we need to restrict its usage amongst teenagers and other developing humans. Or so goes a common and, I think, mistaken argument.
That argument has been getting a lot of airtime this week. Elon Musk’s ongoing attempts to acquire Twitter are resurfacing worries about misinformation and too-lax moderation. Coincidentally, Jonathan Haidt published a long, thoughtful essay comparing social media to the civilization-fragmenting Tower of Babel.
It’s striking how almost all of the substantiated hypotheses on social media, both in general and with respect to education and parenting, focus on its risks and downsides. Social media:
magnifies outrage, both authentic and performative
is a major driver and/or source of misinformation.
causes social-psychological harm by gamifying human connection and status
Jonathan Haidt has hit all these points for years. See also, of course, WSJ’s critical exposé last year covering Meta’s internal research on Instagram’s “toxicity” to girls. Or this story about how some Stanford professors are using their courses on psychology to try to educate students on misinformation.
When you look at the overall pattern of these takes, and particularly when we start to think about students, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something has gone wrong. We are being led into a protective, defensive mode—an understandable posture when it comes to children, but also often a very mistaken one. Some of the same people who are very cognizant of not overprotecting children from physical risks are convincing themselves to view social media with panic.
But what, specifically, is wrong with these takes? It doesn’t seem to be the particular points, which are all unfortunately plausible. At the level of culture, social media has majorly contributed to unhealthy fractiousness. At the level of individuals, everyone knows people for whom social media is a net negative, a source of stress, confusion, or demagoguery, or perhaps even a vector for abuse. As far as the youth go, their custodians struggle with social media policy for a reason, and we should all have deep sympathy for parents and educators on this front.
So let’s grant that the challenges are real. How should we think about them? What’s our basic frame of understanding? It’s here that a myopic focus on the challenges has led us astray, making inobvious the most relevant questions:
Should the risks of social media lead us to a framework of risk-aversion? Or should we rather try to help people, especially young people, manage the risks?
Why are these challenges coming up, anyway? Is it just an accident of business models and technologies, or are there fundamental issues of communication and connection involved? Is a larger dynamic at play, and if so, is there precedent for it in history?
And, most importantly for our purposes, what is the educator’s job with respect to social media?
My view is that we’re in a new information-communication frontier, of the sort that occurs periodically throughout history. There are dangers and risks, but also tremendous benefits. Like any frontier, we can help our children learn to navigate it—not just to minimize the risks but to make the most of the opportunities. And like with any learning that aims at wise discernment and maturity of preferences, this is more a matter of a character than skills.
Here follow some thoughts conducive to a mindset shift.
First, and most simply, we need to get out of the rut of tallying costs while discounting benefits.
I noted above that everyone knows people for whom social media is a net negative in their lives. But everyone also knows people for whom it is a major net positive.
These range from run-of-the-mill use cases, like staying connected to friends and family, to career-defining advantages, like landing a new job or even creating a new type of job. For every person who openly struggles with the negative dynamics of social media, there is a person who finds meaning, work, or just plain fun on social media. For every unfortunately memetic misinformation pattern, there is a new and interesting viewpoint that takes hold, or exposure of a heretofore ignored injustice.
This is an obvious point. It’s a point that many people understand, even explicitly, at least in bursts and in specific cases: when something wholesome goes viral, or when you can stay partially connected during the lockdowns of a global pandemic, or when social media is the go-to platform for spreading true information about a just cause and it helps fuel real change.
What is less obvious is the extent to which these widespread and significant benefits are discounted. These benefits are not small. They are the stuff of human relationships, of connection, of finding an audience for creative and intellectual work, even of envisioning a better society. But even as they are noted, they recede from the narrative. They are mostly on the periphery of meta-discourse on social media. The costs have an emotional reality, the benefits do not.
But, of course, everything seems fundamentally crappy if you just do a cost analysis.
The information frontier
Second, we need to take a wider view, to avoid tendencies towards ahistoricity, or, even worse, the temptation to pine for an imaginary golden age.
On a wider view, one can see that technologies and even social formats are part of an endless cycle of fragmenting and reconsolidating intellectual leadership, of exploring different modes of debate and human connection. This is true even of cafes:
What’s the alternative to an uncertain information landscape? A small number of trusted voices setting the terms of mainstream debate? Well, what are the downsides of that?
We are indeed in a period of lower trust and higher misinformation. But we’re also entering a period where the possibility space for discourse is being vastly expanded. When social media democratizes the ability to, for example, argue in a “public square”, as Elon recently described Twitter, it has historical analogs that I think many of us would see as Mostly Good Things. The rise of schools of rhetoric and philosophy in Classical Greece represented an elevation of discourse and was fueled in no small part by the increased learning ambitions of an emerging middle class. The Enlightenment was powered by the printing press, which enabled waves of continuously reconstructed discourse in the forms of books and pamphlets and periodicals. And there was coffee house culture, and 20th-century examples too, such as radio, and so on.
There may very well be real downsides to all of these trends. Maybe coffee houses did foment a disruption of wisdom as well as dogma, which might in part account for, say, the horrors of Robespierre. But an inability to see potential upsides is myopic. So is an inability to see any downside of the days when discourse was framed by a handful of Walter Cronkites.
A new narrative is needed, one that “refocuses our hearts”, to borrow a turn of phrase from Montessori, on opportunities rather than risks, that lets us maximally benefit from the world-historic upsides of these changes. Here’s one attempt of mine from a couple months ago:
Abnegating on our job as educators
If we shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing a cost analysis, we also shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing a benefit analysis. The opportunities don’t mean that there aren’t risks. Every advance leads us into a new problem space, and the problems of social media are acutely real. So, where does that leave parents and educators, the custodians of the long-term wellbeing of children?
If there’s one piece you should read on social media and education, it’s Angel Eduardo’s Newsweek column from a few days ago: Twitter Can Be Awful—But Also Glorious: The Choice Is Yours.
His piece isn’t about education, it’s more general than that: it highlights that we have agency in how we engage with social media. We’re not just passive victims of algorithms and likes and retweets and shares. We choose whether and how to use these things, and our choices shape our habits over time.
Even though his thesis isn’t directly about education, this is the essential point for educators. Education properly concerns the development of a child’s agency.
The question for educators is: given that social media has both potential psychological risks and potential personal rewards—given that the culture, via social media, is increasingly an information frontier teeming with novelty and uncertainty—and given that whether we lose or gain from social media is significantly a matter of agency and character—how do we help students become the sort of people who can wisely navigate it?
As Eduardo writes,
In many ways, we're living in a kind of technological adolescence. We've suddenly acquired immense power and freedom, and we have a duty to ourselves and each other to use it for our benefit rather than our detriment, to make a concerted effort toward technological maturity.
There are no doubt social-media-specific things we should be doing as part of a good education, things designed to serve as a developmental bridge between an emerging maturity and the application of that maturity to social media spaces. But the first thing is to recognize that the job-to-be-done of education is to foster the underlying maturity necessary to be a virtuous participant of the digital age—to have the self-mastery and affective dispositions to be able to use it, if at all, in service of the enduring good, as part of a life fully lived.
“Maturity” is not inaccurate, but the more morally and educationally precise term is “virtue”. We need to educate for virtue, for independence in the sense of thoughtful, competent self-direction. We need the Socratic perspective that wealth and power and social media and everything are advantageous in the hands of the virtuous and disadvantageous in the hands of the vicious. Think of the virtues in the Montessori system: persistence, independence, self-mastery, a love of good effort and good routines, a desire for independent understanding, a deep benevolence towards other human beings. All of these things should be fostered from birth, and all of these things help one be an agent rather than a patient with respect to social media.
The reality is that our children are growing up into a world characterized in large part by something like an untamed digital frontier. We do them a disservice by treating social media primarily as a source of anxiety and disinformation, something from which they primarily need protection. If you’re raising children on a frontier, you do need to educate on the risks—rattlesnakes and outlaws abound—but in the context of the opportunities. Why is the frontier exciting? Why are people drawn to it? What are the virtues of a good digital hinterlander? What does it take to foster those virtues?
It may very well be that it’s reasonable to have restrictive social media policies for children and teenagers. But it’s not reasonable to implement the policies as part of a framework of cynicism, victimhood, and panic about social media. Any limitations are temporary—they’ll obviously get access to social media sooner or later—and so limitations need to be justified as means of developing the maturity and self-possessedness.
The goal is of all education is virtue, and here it’s no different. We should want for the young that they come to have the sorts of souls that can independently navigate digital risks. We should be educating our students for the necessary magnanimity and love of wisdom such that, if they so desire, they can get the most out of this newest phase of social evolution.
Some other great reads this week:
This one is related to the theme above: Sarah Constantin mulls the tradeoffs of various content moderation approaches in relation to the ways that social media is of value to her. Long, thoughtful thread:
See also Yishan’s long thread on Elon and Twitter if you haven’t already.
The Ukrainians teaching in a war zone (article): The Guardian summarizes the situation with education in Ukraine. Both harrowing and inspiring.
I Quit My Job to Write a Book about Late Bloomers (essay): Henry Oliver has a wonderful essay introducing the topic of his book-in-progress. I’ve been thinking a lot about the different sorts of shapes that lives can take… partly because I’m about to turn 40. I may write more about this in the near future. :)