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Social Media Critical Thinking

10 Strategies To Help Students Use Social Media For Critical Thinking

by Terry Heick

Social media is here to stay.

No matter how much we lament a loss of privacy, too much screen time, superficial identity, or countless other worries, media has been around since language was invented, and we have always sought to make that media as social as locally available technology would allow.

From chisels and tablets to the printing press to radio and television to twitter and Facebook, as long as we continue to have thoughts and ideas, we will continue to seek to publish and socialize them with others.

Technology & ‘Social Emotion’

It would make sense that as technology becomes more integrated, more accessible to all socioeconomic classes, and “smarter” itself, those connections will only deepen as we our priorities–and the tools we use to express them–change.

Existing learning theory says that it’s one or the other–we either connect, relate to, and belong or we devolve into selfishness, exploitation, and greed. And this isn’t a simple moral crossroads, but a matter of neurology.

Scientific American published an article discussing why being ‘connected’ matters. In the article, Matthew Lieberman discusses the idea of ‘social pain.’

‘Languages around the world use pain language to express social pain…As it turns out it is more than a metaphor – social pain is real pain.

The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury. It also alters our motivational landscape. We tend to assume that people’s behavior is narrowly self-interested, focused on getting more material benefits for themselves and avoiding physical threats and the exertion of effort.

But because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves. We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.’

See also ‘Stop Worrying About Screen Time’

Connecting Students

What are the implications for teachers?

For one, digital connectivity, which is already at the forefront of so much of teaching and learning have become.

Use of social media platforms like twitter, facebook, and instagram can walk a fine line, teetering back and forth between connectivity and narcissism.

More immediately for educators, it illuminates our need to create empathetic learning experiences that connect learners for deeply human purposes. The greater the dysfunction, the greater the need to belong.

So then, let’s take a look at 10 ways we can help children–students, in this case–use social media critically. Critical thinking begins with the self and extends out. Rather than fight things like ‘screen time,’ maybe we can help them use that time in more constructive ways grounded in critical thinking.

10 Strategies To Help Students Use Social Media For Critical Thinking

1. Think purpose, not platform.

Connect students through function and purpose, not technology and gadgets

2. Use social media to establish context.

Use social media to help students establish a context for themselves

3. Model intellectual tolerance.

Model for students how to relate to others who are different–that think, look, and act different than what they’re accustomed to, and how to respond to ideas different than their own.

And do so not simply from an ethical ‘be kind’ perspective, but from an intellectual one as well. A big part of intelligence is being able to learn from anything, and a big part of that is the ability to evaluate ideas without personal bias, as well as the ability to sit with an idea and analyze it without accepting or rejecting it.

4. Illuminate interdependence. 

Help students clarify for themselves who and what they’re connected to–the obvious and less obvious. Encourage students to identify multiple “citizenships” they belong to, both locally and digitally, and their diverse participation within each.

5. Extend conceptual comfort zones.

Use place-based education and project-based learning to help students make new connections to people, places, and ideas outside of the curriculum map

6. Clarify categories of knowledge.

Help students see knowledge in categories–academic vs recreational; creative vs industrial, fluid vs fixed, etc–and how social media emphasize, supports, or otherwise makes these available. If they can at least begin to see these categories, they can be more aware of what they’re ‘ingesting.’

7. Analyze and compare citizenship and digital citizenship.

Help students see the effects of their behavior on others, and of others’ behavior on them. Further, offer digital citizenship strategies like “THINK!” so they have a kind of framework for doing so on their own.

8. Amplify cognition.

Have a new idea? Share it with others who are interested in those kinds of ideas.

Document the ‘process’ of that idea–where it came from, how it changed, what influenced it, what you can do with it, and so on. Amplify that understand using the connected and creative abilities of social media.

9. Analyze how the form affects the message.

Perspective is a big part of social media, as is identity and idea form (video versus tweet versus images, etc.) If students can see the how the form of the message affects the message itself, they can think ‘around’ and through the platform and see ideas and their roots themselves.

Have students concept map their own interdependence in a given context (home, family, hobby, neighborhood, classroom, content area, etc.)

10. Seek authenticity.

Assist students in identifying authentic roles in a community they care about.

To be “authentic,” the roles should naturally exist and allow a visible void when left unfilled, providing the student with a meaningful role that matters.

There is a big problem in trying to initiate a discussion on a current event or political issue via social media platforms. The people that respond are capable of answering in the worst possible ways without having to suffer any real life consequences. However, people such as this do nothing to damage the way political discourse is carried out. It is rather the nature of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, which by their nature encourage closed-mindedness.


On Twitter, there is very little space to justify what one believes. In a Tweet, there are only 140 characters in which one may be able to make political statement. This amounts to about two short sentences, or one long one, if you feel the need to let your stream-of-consciousness take the reins. You can easily make a clever joke, a shout-out, or drunken potshot at your least favorite politician within that limit. But that’s all you are capable of doing. There is not nearly enough space to allow you to defend your position thorough reasoning, evidence, or rhetoric that could fully justify your position. Because of this limited space, people often resort to sentimental platitudes that endorse their opinion rather than support it.

For example, if someone (let’s say her name is Mary) were to make a Tweet supporting the legalization of Drug X, someone else (let’s say his name is John) who strongly opposes that viewpoint would want to respond to this by making broad generalizations about the nature of people who use Drug X recreationally, all while endorsing his own side. One can do these sorts of things in 140 characters, so John will do just that. If Mary wishes to address John and his viewpoint by offering well-reasoned arguments that support her position and are backed up by peer reviewed studies that testify to the relative safeness of Drug X, when compared to other alternative legalized drugs, she would be plum out of luck. One-hundred-forty characters is simply not enough space for her to be able to fully defend her position. She would be forced to state a summary of an argument supporting her position in its most basic form, and perhaps she could back it up by posting a link to a news article along with her comment. John is extremely unlikely to click on that link, and whatever summary Mary gave John can easily be blown off as meaningless rhetoric.

Twitter does not allow people to have the ability to have their way of thinking challenged in a serious way. Granted, whether or not Mary could successfully convince John relies heavily on her debating abilities, but the chance to be able to make that attempt should be present. Because of how limited Mary is in her response, John is able to form an image in his head of what the opposite side looks like, and he wants to remain comfortable in his own position, so he thinks of them as being dumb, and he becomes more closed-minded.

Facebook is different than Twitter in that the limit on how much one may write is much less restrictive, to the point where it is possible to have civil discussions with real content. Even so, it has problems that can undermine these discussions.

The presence of “liking” something on Facebook can devolve discussions into contests of “whose side is more popular.” Being able to express blanket agreement allows people to throw their support onto one side of an issue without having to give the slightest thought to the other side. An indecisive person observing this issue being discussed may see that one guy involved in a discussion has been consistently getting more “likes” than the other, and may simply conclude that the guy getting the most likes must be right. This makes it easier for people to forgo critical thinking in favor of a populist mode of thinking that could lead them to regard an issue in terms of simplistic sentiments and platitudes, as opposed to actually assessing the arguments being presented and deciding whether they are of any merit.

Being able to “like” a comment is also problematic in that short comments are more likely to be “liked” because they can be quickly read and comprehended, so that if someone responds to a well thought out paragraph with a terse rebuttal, it is more likely to be “liked”, even if it fails to address the arguments of the other side.

However, one is still capable of ignoring these “likes” and reviewing the content of someone’s comment without letting the little number get to them. As much as I hate to admit it, the ways my mother comments on Facebook are better than the way I do it. I’ve observed that when she is discussing any sort of issue or topic that needs thought, she’s willing to pound out these massive walls of text supporting her side. Even though I can disagree with her, I can still respect the fact that she has an attention span and that her way of thinking is better than the current hashtag way of thinking. In this way, I think we should all be a little more like our parents, in that we should be willing to discuss issues in a civil manner without resorting to short little quips that ultimately do more to harm our side than to help it.

Jason Brooks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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