Social Media’s Like Tossing a ’Tween the Keys to a Harley

Not too long ago, I took my first plane flight in more than a year, heading out to Salt Lake City to help launch a new statewide civics push in Utah. It was good to be somewhere different and it was really good to actually engage with a room full of strangers, appreciate how body language and inflection can soften a pointed rejoinder, and just interact with live people rather than pixels.

It’s funny how the sights, sounds, and presence of those people can help remind you that they’re real and not just one-dimensional beings against a fake background on a Zoom call or disembodied characters in a social-media post. It can change your behavior, too. I think it’s a whole lot harder for us to rant or work up spittle-flecked rage at people when they’re in front of us. When we see one another and talk to one another, a certain baseline empathy tends to kick in.

Those impulse checks are in short supply when things are virtual. As a result, it’s easy to lash out, for others to lash out in response, and for us all to wind up nursing bitter, festering contempt for cartoon versions of people we don’t actually know.

Sonny Bunch flagged this past May how a frustrating technical glitch in Amazon’s search algorithm gave rise to right- and left-wingers alike rushing to insist that there was an attempt to silence them. While Big Tech certainly deserves careful scrutiny for some suspect goings-on, it was pretty readily shown that there was nothing here beyond even-handed ineptitude. Yet, even as that was being sorted out, Bunch noted, online warriors “started putting together comprehensive indexes of prohibited books.”

Reflecting on the whole thing, Bunch observed, “We have built echo chambers that perpetuate falsehoods and designed defenses to keep the truth out . . . We’ve done a great job of building up silos for ourselves — comfortable places that echo and amplify our opinions. But the thing about a silo is that it radically restricts your view of the world.”

This silo construction is trickier, messier, and less successful when you’ve got to physically interact with people. Online engagement allows you to much more readily find the like-minded, reduces the inhibitions that check our nastiest impulses, and scrapes away all the complexity that marks in-person interaction. I think we’ve all accumulated endless instances of this. I don’t know how many times a friend or colleague has said to me, “I kind of regret sending that now. I’d never have said that in person, but I was so angry I just fired it off.”

In theory, social media could foster a culture of inquiry and debate. Whether or not that was the case two decades ago, it’s certainly not the online world of today. What we have instead is what Scott Alexander has described as an “echo culture,” where people gather in ideological communities that serve to amplify outrage and groupthink.

This is a poisonous state of affairs, one which literally hard-wires our brains in ways that make it harder for us to feel empathy, understand different views, or find points of commonality with those outside our silo.

When I talk this way, I inevitably hear from educators who tell me I’m selling social media short. They tell me how they like having their students engage on social media as a resource or a forum.

I get it. Every technological advance, from the automobile to the television, brings with it both the good and the bad. Technology tends to make life easier and more connected, even as it exacts a price. That’s why conversations about new technologies, from drones to vaccines to self-driving cars, often focus on determining who should use them, when, and under what circumstances.

All of us would benefit from more of that when it comes to social media. More efforts to discipline ourselves as to how often we’re on and the kinds of things we write would be all to the good, as would taking concrete steps to emerge from our silos and finding more opportunities to engage in person with people who see things differently.

But, specifically when it comes to youth, I think parents and schools would benefit from thinking about social media not as a few apps embedded in a ’tween’s phone but as sophisticated, double-edged tools that we should learn to use carefully and deliberately. I’m not simply talking about helping students learn to spot fake news or avoid obviously inappropriate content but about helping them build the muscles of personal engagement that otherwise atrophy online.

Social media tends to reward outrage and certainty. It has little use for empathy or nuance. It may nonetheless be a valuable tool (though I have my doubts). Be that as it may, it increasingly seems to me that our approach to helping youth navigate all this is a lot like tossing the keys to a motorcycle to an 11-year-old and saying, “Remember, look both ways and drive safe.”

We can do a lot better.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.