The promise and perils of social media

When I was little I had a whole bunch of pen pals and I had lots of cool stationary. My kids don’t have pen pals. They don’t have stationary either. If they did, they would never use it. They don’t ever need stamps.

It sometimes makes me a bit sad that they will never know the magic of a hand-written letter. I remember how special it was to receive a letter. They didn’t come very often, and when they did it was a wonderful and exciting surprise. I couldn’t wait to rip the envelope open. First I would read through the letter quickly and then I would go back and read slowly, savoring every word.

Writing a letter, getting a hold of a stamp, and posting it was an investment in time and effort. It wasn’t something you did for only a sentence or two, like emails or status updates. In a way it was like a diary entry for me – a bit therapeutic actually – because I had to think about what I wrote, and I wrote about my experiences and what I thought about them. I didn’t expect an instant response; that of course never occurred to me. And I still have letters saved somewhere in a box, maybe for me to read years from now, or maybe for my children and their children to read after I’m gone.

No, my kids don’t have pen pals; they have social media. Before long they will have WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or whatever else will be trending. Their messages will be short and spontaneous, and frequent. They may not contain words, only pictures, and they will be easily deleted and forgotten. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media can be pretty great. Personally, I get a lot of pleasure from being connected. I’ve been able to find friends from my past who I had lost touch with. I know what people – friends and relatives I would otherwise hear from or see very rarely – are up to, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. And I have this blog! I find that I make less of an effort to call or meet friends in person, but I do keep in touch virtually. You win some and you lose some.

A couple of years ago I came across a book by Sherry Turkle titled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which has really stayed with me. (If you don’t want to read her book you can also watch her TED talk ‘Connected, but alone?’) Turkle talks about how social networks can have an adverse effect on individuals’ identities. In their messages and updates, people present a self they want to be. They keep it short and take out the messiness that makes up a real person’s life, and as a result, they are flattened and “reduced to their profiles.” They give less of themselves, and also expect less in return, and by communicating in short sentences, abbreviations, and emoticons, there isn’t really much chance of a complex dialogue. This would be fine, except that it is through dialogues that people learn about themselves and form their identities.

But it’s not only that. It can also be a problem that communication is so fast. People post without thinking, and sometimes you see the most horrendous comments. There has recently been a discussion about WhatsApp and how it is used in my kids’ school. Kids bully other kids, perhaps without even realizing it. They may say something awful about someone, and to make matters worse, it is done publicly, and shared with everyone because it is done on social media. While this may be hurtful and have long-term effects for the person on the receiving end, for everyone else the feed may already have been filled with so much more that no one even remembers it. It’s like it never was. Maybe there’s a reason the age limit for WhatsApp is sixteen?

But I don’t believe in going back, we can never go back, only forward. I do, however, believe we need to think about what kind of a culture we want and are creating together. We need to think about what values we pass on to our children, and about the examples we set. If we are obsessed with how many likes or followers we have, they will be too. And if we don’t show respect and think first before we blurt things out, neither will they. Social media is not just a form of communication; it’s a virtual space where people hang out. We need to be there with our children and our students, showing and teaching them what is okay and what is not; what is important and what is destructive. We need to make sure social media is the positive medium it was meant to be.

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