The role of social media in the world of education

In today’s world, social media has become the greatest scapegoat for many of society’s problems. While this is not without some cause, we often forget the advantages of these platforms, particularly in the world of education. Whether it concerns seeking advice, support, or a means of communication, social media has revolutionised the ways we interact with each other, and continues to provide a voice to those who need one the most.

Mental health is often considered the greatest source of criticism against social media, especially concerning young people today. It is undeniable that its overuse can result in negative perceptions of body image, lower levels of self-confidence and greater social anxiety. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that platforms such as Tumblr have been found to romanticise these issues, advertising them as somehow poetic or even fashionable. But, aside from these outstanding negatives, does the use of social media have any advantages with regard to mental health? Well, according to some experts, it does. A survey by the mental health organisation Time to Change found that 47% of people aged 21 and under find it easiest to talk about issues of mental health online. Posting anonymously on websites such as Twitter or Instagram, those suffering are able to identify with similar cases and can express themselves more freely. According to John Powell, a public health researcher at the University of Oxford, social media is “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone”. Therefore, is it possible that social media is helping reduce the stigma attached to mental health? It is, after all, a space powered by the people, and therefore a space for good, as well as evil.

Another advantage of social media platforms, especially for university students, is the quick and easy access to news and current affairs. Social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat are often the first point of contact between young people and the world around them. With one quick glance at their news feed, students are provided with a snapshot of current affairs, entertainment news, and technological developments. Nearly 70% of Americans said they get news from social media, a recent survey by Wired revealed. However, a majority of those interviewed (57%) expected this news to be “largely inaccurate”. So, whilst there are indeed positive aspects to this mode of consumption, it is important to be aware that much of this information has been selected by these platforms to fit a specific purpose. Yet, from a student’s perspective, is it not our responsibility to be aware of the world we live in? Even in the knowledge that some of what we read may be false or misconstrued? In the world of fast and fake news, surely there is a place for social media, as long as we remain aware of its limits; providing nothing more than a fractured and often filtered glimpse into the world outside our screens.

Social networking has become a very popular step in the quest for employment, and is therefore directly applicable to university students. Over 92% of recruiters use social media to seek out highly qualified candidates, with 87% using online services such as Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter. In addition to this, social medium platforms have been used increasingly by universities as a means of promotion to attract prospective students. This year’s International Student Survey (ISS) from Hobsons found that 83% of prospective students are using social channels to research universities, an increase of 19% between 2016 and 2017. In addition to this, 42% of respondents said they would like to use social networks such as WhatsApp to communicate directly with their universities, while 35% would prefer to use Facebook. The University of Warwick has dedicated an entire section of its website to the role of social media on campus and provides useful information on how best to use these platforms for good. The university promotes students to engage with social media as both individuals and members of the Warwick community. Kindness, consideration, respect; these three values are considered integral to the use of social media, and essential to cleaning up its poor reputation.

The influence of social media has also inspired a new generation of social and political movements which have transformed the way young people think about the world. These platforms transcend cultural, lingual, religious and ethnic backgrounds, and offers movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter a mode of expression. Even if they do not directly involve monetary funding, many online social movements raise awareness for causes through tweets, posts and hashtags. As an example, in 2015 the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was tweeted 9 million times, and has now become a rallying cry for social justice and racial equality. In the political sphere, active online groups increase political participation by providing a framework for discussion, leading petitions, and collecting donations in order to further a political agenda. The influence of social media in the Brexit campaign is a good example of this. During the referendum, the top three most frequently used hashtags on the profiles of Brexiteers were #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Using the Internet, the Leave camp was able not only able to appeal to a wider audience, but establish an online presence for the campaign. Yet, for better or for worse, it is clear that social media has changed the nature of political and social campaigning and will continue to play a key role in future movements around the world. As more and more people spend a increasing amount of their day to day lives online, social media is becoming a more powerful force to shape the public agenda and drive social change.

Without social media platforms, the opportunity to engage with an endless supply of students and academic professionals, regardless of age or location, would be near impossible. As mentioned already, social media occupies a significant amount of time in the day-to-day lives of young people. Yet, aside from the social appeal of these platforms, an increasing number of students are using them to engage in academic conversations online; exchanging ideas and creating ‘meaningful dialogues’ between themselves and others. More than 59% of students who use social networking engage in talks about educational topics online, a recent survey says. In addition to this, social media giants such as Facebook have been used by university students in order to complete collaborative assignments, and reach out to professionals in their chosen fields for expert advice and opinions. Even Youtube, a social media platform which has been scrutinised for negatively impacting the productivity of students, holds a vast supply of educational videos that help develop various academic practices and skills. So, how are universities remaining relevant in this world of online discussions? Well, partnerships such as TedXWarwick have helped unite these platforms, and the university’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages are regularly encouraging students to ‘have their say’.

So, with more than one thousand posts, twenty-seven thousand tweets and one hundred thousand likes, it seems that Warwick is well-aware of the positive influences of social media, and continues to maintain the balance between online and real-world discussions at the level of higher education.

Written for the University of Warwick’s student newspaper, The Boar.

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