How Social Media Corrupts Learning

Social media's negative effects on learning are massive.
Girls Social Media Addiction
Photo: Freepik/

There is a unique genre of email I receive that only comes from online students.  The tone is passive aggressive, a few hundred words of “How Dare You?” It usually finds its way to my inbox when a student receives some critique on a quiz or test and is not awarded the full amount of points. 

This conversation never occurs face-to-face. The situation reminds me of the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where a truck full of various hats spills its cargo in the midst of Elmer Fudd’s pursuit of Bugs. As they each put on one of the hats they are magically transformed into the persona of that particular hat. Something like that seems to be taking place here. The same students who would speak so to a professor in a face-to-face course are capable of doing so when wearing the online “hat.”  Why is that?  What is it about the online medium that provides the right ingredients for serving up the patty melt?

Empirical observation and common sense offer some plausible answers.

To begin, perhaps online students are not as prepared for the time management responsibility of requiring them to work on their own. They do poorly on assignments because of this and lash out at instructors rather than themselves. Or, perhaps two years of covid lockdowns and learning loss has made some students ill equipped to handle college work generally. They cannot understand why their work is not meeting standards because their experience of what counts as acceptable has been lowered.

But these explanations remain superficial. They don’t account for the Janus faced aspect of the phenomenon. Face to face students somehow know the tone of such an email is inappropriate and unprofessional, but when they attend online classes at least some of them send them anyway.  It is possible then, that the problem is structural to the online medium itself.

The “hat” we wear when online is mostly as consumers and the engine of consumption is desire. In the case of social media, where many young people largely define their own identities, the desire is for honor and prestige via clicks and likes, not necessarily the pursuit of truth or excellence. The desire to be honored requires the approval of someone else, whereas the desire for understanding makes one self-sufficient.

If I know something to be true and someone claims the opposite, my self esteem cannot be threatened.  Claims by the ignorant will most likely be met with bemusement or outright indifference. However, if I desire to be honored more than I desire the truth, I am cut off from the possibility of generating my own self esteem because the need to be liked and honored by others is more important to me than understanding and knowing myself.

Whatever the social media platform, the coin of the realm is likes. Likes are desired.  Likes are consumed…there are never enough likes. Likes are points. And this brings us back to these passive aggressive emails. Even the loss of a few points on a low stakes quiz is enough to threaten the self esteem of a student so tyrannically ruled by the need to be honored over the desire for truth.

The online student has synthesized the ethos of social media, desiring “likes” or redeeming their honor with a “clap back.” It vulgarizes the process of learning. Students who engage in it risk the danger of never fully developing independence from the herd.  Teachers who indulge in it are committing educational malpractice.

Isaac Ruedin
Isaac Ruedin teaches philosophy in the Midwest.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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