The Social Media Revolution: What Does It Mean for Our Children?

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Shlomo Hamelech teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun.

This phrase comes to mind when contemplating the ease of mass communication facilitated by social media. Centuries ago people similarly grappled with the advent of the printing press. On the one hand, the printing press led to the easy dissemination of books and pamphlets. This obviously was a great boon for the spread of both talmud Torah and general knowledge. However, this was threatening as well. Dissemination of ideas was no longer monopolized by the few who controlled the flow of information. Anyone with a printing press could get his ideas out to thousands. Copyists were no longer the gatekeepers of books, deciding what was worth sharing. Many printed works spread dubious ideas or challenged the authority of those in power. Some historians even cite the printing press as one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation, which ended the hegemony of the Catholic Church.

The world of social media represents a similar challenge, but on a far greater scale. While the printing press allowed anyone with financial means to spread his ideas, it was still limited to the upper echelons of society. Those who were not well financed or did not have sponsorship could not afford to print their works. There were still gatekeepers to the spread of ideas, even though the gates had been opened some. With the rise of social media, the gates have been breached. Anyone with a computer or smartphone and “followers” or “friends” on a social network can easily spread his ideas— both good and bad, worthwhile and vapid—to an audience of thousands. This is especially frightening for parents trying to navigate the digital world their children inhabit.

How accepting should we be of our children’s involvement with this new technology? This is a difficult question. In the secular world, a number of different approaches have developed. On one side of the spectrum there are experts who believe that we would be better off without it. One commonly cited proponent of this approach is Nicholas Carr, who argues in his book The Shallows that the Internet has encouraged superficial reading and thinking. When one can Google just about everything, who has the time to read deeply and contemplate anything? Similarly, many claim that social media platforms like Facebook rarely spawn deep conversations and often seem to dwell on inanities.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who point to the great potential of social media. The author of  Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky is a leading advocate for this approach, describing what he calls a “cognitive surplus” where ordinary people are able to connect with others using social media to accomplish good on a scale that was only possible in the past for people in positions of power or of significant financial means. (Think of the way social media enable us to disseminate the names of sick people, for example, who need our prayers.)

For parents to determine their position vis-à-vis social media, they must first understand them. With that in mind, here is a brief overview of the most common social media tools used today.

Facebook—the social media platform of choice for most adolescents, with 80 percent of teens on Facebook according to a recent estimate from the Pew Research Center (“Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites”).

On Facebook one accumulates “friends” with whom he shares status updates containing text, links, pictures or videos. These appear on the user’s “wall” or timeline. One can limit status updates to select people and not all friends. An individual can post text, photos or links to his friend’s wall or timeline, with or without prior approval from his friend. One can also set up a Facebook group to communicate with people who are not necessarily his or her friend on Facebook, create an event and an organization, business or famous personality can set up a Facebook page to communicate with fans who “like” the page.

Twitter—the second most common social media platform, Twitter is much less popular than Facebook among  teens but has doubled its teen users in the last three years to 16 percent of teens (“Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites”). Twitter users send public messages, called “tweets,” using 140 characters or fewer. Users can mark their accounts as private for only select people to see, but most tweets are public so that anyone can find them. On Twitter a person accumulates “followers” who subscribe to his tweets. Tweets can then be “re-tweeted” or shared by followers, so one never really knows where his tweets may end up.

One caveat is in order: the world of social media is constantly changing. Currently Facebook and Twitter are the two most popular social media platforms. However, many experts argue that these are already being supplemented and perhaps even supplanted by mobile tools designed for smartphones, such as the Instagram photo sharing app which was recently purchased by Facebook and currently has over 50 million users, many of them teenagers. This is one more reason why parents need to constantly stay informed, up-to-date and vigilant in their quest to help their children navigate this new digital world.

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. He is also an online instructor for the Mofet Institute in Israel and has given technology workshops throughout North America, Israel and most recently South Africa.

Photo: All Jewish Digital Archive

Jewish Action asked educators representing yeshivot across the Orthodox spectrum to respond to the following questions regarding social media: Do you encourage students to be on Facebook and Twitter? What is your view of technology in general? Are social media different from other forms of new media? If you encourage the use of social media, do you offer students any guidelines? Are there any concerns you discuss with students related to their use of social media? Read some answers here. Share your thoughts regarding social media in the comments.


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