Voices Vol 41 No 1


Is the Social Media Making Us Stupid?

By Marilyn Pongracz

A s Isaac Asimov wrote, new technology can move our lives forward, and we would never want to go back, but it also poses new challenges as we face the negative results of that technology.

The online world has changed our lives and those of our students as well.  For most, even adults who have just arrived from other countries, the Internet is no longer a foreign place.  Practicing English online is common, and students often use a dictionary app[lication] on their cell phones to check their spelling.  However helpful the online resources may be, we must also be aware of the effects of the new technology even on English language learners, especially those who are younger, who are caught up in using the new media of Facebook and texting.  Researchers are beginning to observe the negative effects of extended use of these mediums on critical thinking.  This summer, Heloise Ruskin, an English Language Resource Center professional tutor and retired Bergen Community College English professor, wrote a paper entitled “The Net Generation: Social Networking Up, Critical Thinking Down!” This paper will be published in Turkey as part of a book on the effects of the social media. 

“Is the Social Media Making Us Stupid?” may sound like an exaggeration, but Professor Ruskin’s research supports it.  She focused on the effect of young people’s overuse of Facebook, Twitter and texting on their ability to read and think critically. Critical thinking plays a pivotal role in reading comprehension and developing coherent, well thought out essays.  Professor Ruskin’s research and insights can help teachers better understand the communication environment which affects our students.

Abstract for the Paper:

“Marshall McLuhan in the 1960’s, and Neil Postman in the 1980’s, showed that the form of the new electronic medium negatively impacted both the content of its discourse and the thought processes of the population. Now, in the 21st century, American authors Nicholas Carr, Mark Bauerlein and Elias Aboujouade, among others, have written well-researched books which examine the form of today’s “new media” and their effects on habitual users. This essay, “The Net Generation: Social Networking Up Critical Thinking Down,” focuses on the impact of the form and affordances of the social media, in particular of Facebook, Twitter and texting, on young people born between 1986 and 2001. It documents with statistics and neurocognitive research studies the downward momentum of change in American youths’ habits of mind as their interactive social networking far outpaced their leisure time reading in the print medium. The paper describes the feedback loop that the Net Generation is caught up in: Their increased social networking has disabled their ability to pay attention to what they read. This means that they cannot read easily and so do little reading. Thus they do not develop the critical thinking skills which are the same as those required for deep reading. Because they lack these skills and read so little, they are not able to build a knowledge base in their long-term memories that would enable them to gain more knowledge through more reading. This in turn leads to further frustration in reading. Thus they are brought full circle to less reading, less critical thinking and more social networking.”

Excerpts from the paper:

1.       “Young people today are reading and writing in the short form, reading books only minimally and instead reading and writing in the social media in short bursts of thought passed out 140 characters at a time, and often fewer.  Those in the Net Generation are often unfocused, distracted by multi-tasking and information overload. They text and post and microblog before they think, and emotion and hype rule the day. They skim and surf through the “news of the day” from their friends and compatriots, rather than engage in deep reading and so end up with attenuated long-term memories and thus an attenuated knowledge base upon which to draw to make the connections among facts, ideas, insights, intuitions which is at the heart of thinking. Thus, having so little practice, they cannot engage well in critical reading, critical thinking and thoughtful writing.” 

2.       “We always want to believe that every problem has a solution. What would seem to be the solution for young people to rescue themselves from their “attention deficit disorder” is for them to   become deep readers. Unfortunately, we have seen that the chances of a young adult who had not become a reader as a child to become one later are dismal. He is disabled mainly by his social networking and reading deficit from becoming one because he has an insufficient memory bank and vocabulary upon which to build more learning and because he keeps doing more and more scanning and multitasking!”

3.       Professor Ruskin concludes her paper by citing from an address given by President Obama who spoke of the “pressure on our democracy” resulting from youth’s immersion in social networking rather than in deep reading.  Ruskin agrees.  She says, “The proper functioning of a democracy, after all, depends on an informed, thoughtful public to make good decisions in the public interest, not a public caught up in social networking and suffering from attention deficit and knowledge deficits.  In short, a democratic country and a culture vibrant with new ideas and solutions to social and political problems, needs young people who can think critically!”

This article first appeared in the fall issue of the Bergen Community College ELRC newsletter.  Marilyn Pongracz is the Technology Coordinator for NJTESOL/NJBE and the English Language Resource Center Supervisor at Bergen Community College