Benefits and Drawbacks of Social Media in Education

October 15, 2011

Mark Connolly

Mark Connolly

Every day, about 250 million people log in to Facebook.

Twitter has 15 million regular users; they send 65 million messages each day.

People watch more than two billion video clips on YouTube daily. Every hour, users upload an average of 24 hours of video content.

Every day, more than 90 percent of college students visit a social network site.

That’s a lot of information bombarding students. Trying to keep up with it all can change the way the brain functions. Is this good or bad?

Both. WCER researcher Mark Connolly acknowledges that these social media show value in educational settings—as long as they are used prudently. Many have pointed to the educational benefits of these media (also called Web 2.0). Social media tools and networking sites encourage students to engage with one another and to express and share their creativity.

Connolly suggests an additional benefit: establishing enduring relationships with real people. This means going beyond seeing others simply as peers who trade digital content. For example, connecting with fellow dorm residents through Facebook can help a student overcome the kind of isolation that otherwise might lead her to leave school. A Twitter account can provide a shy student with information about events that facilitates face-to-face encounters with other students. Such personal interactions are vital to creating and sustaining a sense of belonging.

These relationships can be fostered on the community level, too. For example, Chicago’s DePaul University sponsors a “This is DePaul” contest for students to contribute short YouTube videos that best capture the DePaul experience. In 2009, the winning videos drew nearly 20,000 viewers. Social network sites also can help students develop leadership skills, from low-level planning and organizing, to activities that promote social change and democratic engagement.

The Drawbacks of Social Media

Along with the benefits, Connolly cautions that students who use social networking tools might pay significant hidden cognitive costs. Facebook, Google and other web services simultaneously seize and fragment our attention. They can subvert higher-order reasoning processes, including the kind of focus, concentration and persistence necessary for critical thinking and intellectual development. Some researchers have correlated heavy Internet use with greater impulsivity, less patience, less tenacity and weaker critical thinking skills. The need to rapidly shift from object to object online can weaken students’ ability to control their attention. Prolonged Internet use exposes students to interactive, repetitive and addictive stimuli that produce permanent changes in brain structure and function. The more one uses the Internet and social media, the better the brain can skim and scan. But research suggests that these gains degrade the capacity for concentration, reasoning and reflection—in fact the very sort of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning needed to honestly appraise the full costs of using social media.

Considerations in the Educational Use of Social Media

Students must learn to distinguish the skill needed to locate information online from the ability to understand that information. Using social media to cultivate and demonstrate deep learning is possible, but that requires overcoming the persistence of distraction, the surfeit of irrelevant information and the temptation to wander.

Students can develop a capacity for practical reasoning when using social media. Educators and students should have multiple, purposeful discussions about social media’s pros and cons. Social media can enhance and impede student learning, and educators can use realistic case studies to help students identify trade-offs. For example, the use of social media in educational settings may incorrectly suggest that learning should be easy and quick. If so, students should be shown the value of reinvesting the time and effort saved by technology into higher-order tasks that really matter to their learning, such as writing a complex argument, reading difficult texts and debating ideas with others.

Social technologies are here to stay. Connolly says that it is important to help students learn how to use social media in an instrumental way, learn how to think deliberately about their use and consider the sorts of outcomes for which using social media are proper.

In the real world, students will find themselves facing a difficult situation involving social media that rules alone cannot resolve. Connolly says the problem will require their best judgment—a kind of practical wisdom that cannot be taught, but instead is learned through practice accompanied by guidance and support.

Knowing when, where and with whom to use social media, Connolly concludes, may be the most important learning outcome of all.

This material appears in revised form as a chapter in the book, Contested Issues in Student Affairs: Diverse Perspectives and Respectful Dialogue, edited by Peter M. Magolda and Marcia B. Baxter Magolda (Stylus Press, 2011).