How Social Media Is Killing Student Success


Do you use social media on a daily basis? Feel like you'd be lost if you had to do without it? You're certainly not alone, especially as both the variety of social media sites and the number of ways to access them has expanded rapidly over the past few decades, allowing an unprecedented level of connectivity.

Yet while social media has been lauded for its ability to connect people from all over the world, build friendships, support political causes, and even help people find work, it has also been blamed for a whole host of social problems. Some of this blame, subsequent research has shown, has been placed unfairly, but that doesn't mean that social media doesn't pose some real problems for its users.

As it turns out, being so connected all the time comes with serious drawbacks. It can shorten attention spans, become addictive, lead to less diverse social groups, and even, among student users, cause a marked drop in academic performance. For those who use social media in class or take online courses steeped in social media interaction, these potential effects can be a bit scary and may have many wondering what role, if any, social media should play in higher education.

Your Brain on Social Media

With an estimated 800 million people worldwide using Facebook and countless others connecting through Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, MySpace, and other sites, it only makes sense that social media has become a heavily researched subject over the past few years. After all, on such a large scale, the effects of these types of media could be quite significant, especially among groups who are heavy users. While studies haven't revealed social media to be the societal evil that some have played it up as being, that doesn't mean that it isn't influencing how you act and think, often in ways you may not even realize.

In many ways, social media is simply one aspect of the growing trend for individuals to constantly be working on several things at once and be inundated with the latest news, information, and updates, whether they're important or not. While social media isn't alone in exacerbating these problems, it is one of the most distracting and widely used ways that people divide their attention, especially since smartphones, laptops, tablets and  other gadgets have made it easier to bring these distractions with them anywhere.

Multitasking Leads to Habitual, Distracted Thinking

While multitasking sounds great on the surface, allowing individuals to do more in less time, research shows that this kind of sustained division of attention can have serious and often deleterious effects on the brain itself.

A study at UCLA in 2006 found that that those who multitasked, using laptops to look at social media in class, for instance, actually utilized a different part of the brain than their more focused counterparts. Instead of employing the hippocampus, used for memory and learning in the brain, like focused learners, multitaskers use the striatum. The striatum can hold memories quite well, but only those used for forming habits or patterns. This is great for learning physical tasks or doing assembly line work, but not for attaining academic excellence. In fact, in a way, those who are multitasking are actually training their brains to be distracted, shortening their attention spans, and making themselves less able to think in high-level situations, none of which bodes well for college-level learning.

So we should just stop multitasking, right? Well, it's not that easy. Once you start multitasking, even if you're just checking your Facebook while working on homework or texting a friend while writing a paper, it becomes almost impossible to switch that need to do more than one thing at once off. If our brains were wired for this kind of dual duty attention, this would be an asset, but they're not. Multitasking actually makes us less efficient and produces poorer results. Research has shown that even those who think they're great at multitasking are actually terrible at filtering out irrelevant information, and performing well on two tasks simultaneously. Yet most of us just can't stop, even if we know it's not leaving us at our best. 

Social Media can be Addictive, Taking Priority over School and Sleep

Not only do our brains have a hard time letting go of our constant need to multitask, there is evidence that suggests that social media and other forms of digital engagement may have an addictive effect on the brain as well. A study by researchers at the University of Winchester found that when heavy social media users were asked to stop using the services for a month, some (though not all) experienced negative feelings related to the ban, including feeling cut off from the world and social isolation. While most psychologists and social media experts agree that overuse of these sites doesn't really reach the dangerous levels of true addiction, the release of dopamine that comes from online recognition can be habit-forming, and may even cause some to neglect important tasks like schoolwork and sleep.

This addictive high of social media and the compulsion to multitask have combined to make it harder than ever for today's students to buckle down and pay attention, which is proving to have some very real effects. A study at the Miriam Hospital's Center for Behavioral and Preventative Medicine found that student engagement with digital media of any kind, whether it be posting to Facebook or sending a text to a friend, could have a big impact on grades, lowering GPAs and negatively impacting other areas of academic performance. With the freshmen women in the study spending nearly 12 hours a day (yes, more than half their waking hours) engaged in some form of media use, this may not be especially surprising, but it is troubling. Because these students spend so much time engaging with media, they spend less time doing homework, attending class, and even taking care of themselves by getting enough sleep. 

The Pros and Cons of Social Media in Education

While it's true that social media can have a negative impact on your brain, it's not the tool itself that's the problem but how it's used. In fact, social media plays a productive and incredibly useful role in the classroom at colleges all over the country, and many feel it has a strong role to play in enriching the educational experience for students for years to come.

Yet social media has been a hotly contested addition to classrooms at all levels, not just in college. And in truth, it does come with the potential for distraction and a myriad of other issues. But a closer examination of the pros and cons of social media reveal that it's not nearly as dangerous as some have made it out to be and may be just what some students need to feel connected to their coursework and their classmates.

The Good

The Bad

With so much to gain and so many potential pitfalls, it can be confusing to students whether to embrace social media or to shun it. The reality is that it isn't going away anytime soon, so the best move is to learn how to make social media a valuable tool for learning and collaborating, not just a way to procrastinate when you're supposed to be writing a paper.  

Smart Social Media Use

Since most of us don't have the willpower or desire to totally disconnect from social media (and some in online courses really can't opt out and still complete their work), learning how to use social sites in smarter ways that make them learning assets instead of obstacles is one of the best things you can do for your academic career and beyond.

1. Unplug from Social Media and Similar Distractions

Leelawatte Popali-Lehane, a clinical psychologist at Diversity in Aging, says that a critical part of success for online students (or any students) in balancing their studies and their social media usage is set aside time just for working on class materials. Unless social media is explicitly required to complete an assignment, during these hours students should instruct friends and family not to contact them and turn off cell phones, block access to social sites, and reduce the number of things that can potentially distract them. 

2. Set Time Limits for Computer-Related Activities

She also recommends setting strict limits on checking emails, texts, and social sites. Checking them frequently can become a bad and very distracting habit that makes it hard to concentrate on more important and academically focused tasks. If you find yourself repeatedly checking them when you shouldn't be, set up programs on your computer that will block your access if it's not within your set hours or time limits. 

If you find that you simply can't seem to kick the habit of checking social sites, Popali-Lehane advises getting out of the house and leaving the technology behind. "If you have a project to do, you can start your research at a brick-and-mortar library and get help from the librarian in finding hard copies of materials like books, magazines, and newspapers," she says. "This way, you limit the temptation to surf and consequently waste precious time."

3. Leave your Laptop at Home, Take Notes with Pen and Paper

And if you're not an online student? Popali-Lehane says that no matter how cool it may seem to bring your laptop to class, it's actually more of a distraction than an easy way to take notes. She finds that most of her students lose focus when they get an email or start browsing social sites instead of paying attention, so good old fashioned pen and paper may be the best choice.

4. Identify Productive Ways to Use Social Media

If you do have to use social media for class, make it productive. Get to know your professor, share resources, talk to experts, and keep up with the news of the world instead of getting lost in online games or mindlessly checking for updates from friends. There are many positive and productive ways to use social media, and applying them to your courses can help you get more out of what you're learning and overcome feelings of isolation that can plague many new students both online and off.

At the end of the day, anything can be a distraction if you let it, even things that can have a largely positive influence on your life. Social media is no more a success killer than any of these, provided you use it wisely and don't allow it to become a distraction that keeps you from achieving the things you really want to do. In some cases, it can even be an asset for learning, keeping you connected and engaged with your courses, your field, and your colleagues. The trick is figuring out how to navigate the fine line between productivity and obsession and come out ahead on the other side.  

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