In a previous article, I shared some thoughts about how my wife and I are attempting to equip our thirteen-year-old daughter to navigate the world of social media. One friend kindly said how much he appreciated the article and had saved it away for when his two year old was ready to go on Facebook! As much as I appreciated the encouragement, I suspect by the time my friend’s daughter is thirteen, my thoughts about Facebook will be about as useful as something somebody wrote about internet use back in 2003. And actually, given the increase in the rate of change, by 2023 thoughts about the state of social media written in 2013 may well be as informative then as something written about social media in 1913 is valuable today!
If we stay dependent on savvy social commentators to provide information about the latest trends in social media, we’re always going to be on the back foot when it comes to helping children and adolescents navigate new and challenging worlds. The principle of guiding responsible engagement through gradually increasing levels of freedom and responsibility will remain. How though will we know where the shoals and eddies lie? There are bound to be dangers as well as opportunities lurking in any new technology. So how will we be able to identify them so that we might guide our children well?
We’d be helped by having some healthy conversations with our children. Here are eight questions to guide us: four from the field of ‘media ecology’ (in this article) and four from the grand story of the Bible (in the next article).
The Four Laws of Media Ecology
The concept of ‘Media Ecology’ was first described in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan (famous for his ‘the medium is the message’ dictum). Media ecology likens the impact of new technology to human society to the impact of lantana to the Australian bush. We are not simply left with the Australian bush with the addition of an invasive weed. The environment has changed.
McLuhan proposes four ‘laws of media’ that identify the effects of technological change:
- New technology can enhance or extend our natural human capacities
- Existing practices and capacities can be pushed aside or made obsolete by new technology
- New technology can retrieve actions or services from the past that we have previously abandoned
- Overuse of new technology can end up in negative consequences that reverse the enthusiasm for its original benefits
This tetrad of extension, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal is easily identified with facebook.
Facebook has the ability to extend and enhance productive social connections; from the ability to hear the news from overseas friends or to mobilise a generation for peace as we saw in the Arab spring in 2011. Though for a less positive example of the same power of social media we could just as easily point to the Cronulla riots of 2010.
Facebook can also end up making face-to-face communication obsolete. Though I am more up-to-date with the latest happenings in my sisters’ lives through their Facebook updates (and my nieces’ and nephews’ reflex to Instagram their lives in detail), I probably speak to them less than we did when we used to actually simply chat about each other’s news. It’s hard to say whether this is good or bad or just different. It is interesting that we are lamenting the loss of telephone conversations when a few generations ago we would have been lamenting the loss of face-to-face and written communication wrought by the onset of the telephone.
The shared conversation that Facebook makes possible is in many ways a retrieval of the ‘town square’ conversations of the past. Again this holds promise for good (shared conversations build unity of vision; democratic involvement promotes open debate) and evil (gossip; bullying).
And of course, there are ways that the benefits of Facebook can be undone through overuse. Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together is a fascinating and in many ways disturbing analysis of the impact of computer-mediated communication. Turkle highlights dangers such as the collaborative-self (where sharing feelings is a necessary part of discovering them), presentation anxiety (where the challenge of self-construction becomes pervasive) and the promotion of narcissism (a personality so fragile it needs constant support).
Four questions to ask young people about social media
McLuhan’s four laws give us four simple questions to ask in a conversation with young people about social media. No tech savvy required; just the ability to ask good questions and listen.
- What are the things you do with your friends that this new technology makes easier or more possible?
- Are there things you used to do with them that you don’t anymore because you’re using this new technology instead?
- Are there things about how people used to relate to each other that you think this new technology makes possible again?
- What do you think could happen if you used this new technology too much?
As new technologies come on to the scene, the time is ripe for a conversation (or four conversations, or more) around these four questions. We won’t have the answers, but some probing questions and careful listening will help our young people consider the range of different effects that new communication technologies are having on their relationships.
Understanding what’s going on is the first step; knowing how we ought to respond is the next. To do that we need to turn to Scripture - I will examine the idea of a Biblical theology of social media in my next article. Click here to continue reading, and find out four more questions to ask young people about social media.
Graham Stanton is the Principal of Youthworks College.