Engaging Students in Critical Social Media Analysis Through Debate

As part of the national celebration of Digital Learning Day last month, I had the opportunity to moderate an online debate between two teams of high school students from opposite ends of California about the merits and risks of social media as a communication tool. Considering that I helped coach a high school policy debate team in my former life, I was thrilled to participate in this lively dialogue.

The California Writing Project organized the debate, which was recorded and broadcast through Google Hangout on Air, in order to demonstrate an innovative way that teachers can use technology to engage young people from different geographic locations in discussions about controversial political issues of common concern.

In addition to the debate I participated in about social media, another group of teachers tackled appropriate responses to the grand jury decision in the Darren Wilson case with their students.

These timely topics, as well as the opportunity to meet students from different schools, generated quite a bit of excitement among the students. Access toolkits with resources related to these topics and more are available online.

Moderating this debate offered me another powerful reminder about the sophisticated and complex analyses that young people possess about the role of social media in their lives. While I find that mainstream media often characterizes teenagers as gullible or immature when it comes to technology use, unable to resist the siren song of Snapchat or YikYak and helpless to distinguish between public and private speech, the students I worked with demonstrated a much more nuanced relationship with the devices in their lives through the arguments that they presented on both sides of the issue.

The resolution that the students debated read: Is social media destroying our social skills? Students from Dinuba High School, led by their teacher, Betsy Ritzman Weber, took the affirmative viewpoint and described the dangers of social media, while students from Locke High School, led by their teacher, Kate Hicks, argued the negative side and defended social media as a valuable form of communication.

The teams clashed on three major issues that in ways spoke to students’ critical perspectives of technology. First, while the affirmative team warned that social media degraded interpersonal communication in ways that encouraged anonymity and cyber-bullying, the negative team reminded us that the Internet is what we make of it and can be a site where like-minded young people can forge empowering relationships and build solidarity.

Second, the students struggled with defining social media as a tool for recreation or a tool for education, as well as the appropriate role that adults should play in monitoring young people’s online activity. The affirmative team considered the argument that the Internet is a space that distracts young people from more serious pursuits and engagement with the “real world,” while the negative team cleverly noted that educational Google debates like the very one they were participating in were made possible through technological advances.

Finally, the students considered whether social media made it more difficult for students to communicate in face-to-face formats and pick up on nonverbal cues or if the low stakes to engagement actually encouraged students to become more outgoing and more willing to express themselves.

As is the case in a debate, the students were required to argue passionately for the side of the issue they were assigned regardless of their personal opinions. This turned out to be a powerful educational tool since the drive to compete led students to think of counter-arguments, find alternative sources of evidence, and consider perspectives that they might otherwise dismiss out of hand.

Students demonstrated that given the opportunity, they are more than ready to dialogue with adults about both useful and potentially dangerous aspects of social media in ways that could help create more powerful and safer online learning opportunities inside and outside of classrooms. Instead of seeking to protect young people from the Internet or rigidly control their access to it, these students encourage us to respect the maturity of young people and collaborate with them to find the best uses for this powerful communication tool.

By the way, my official judgment in the debate is that both sides won.