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Social Media Helps Students Write Better
Are Social Networking Sites Harmful?. 2015.
COPYRIGHT 2015 Greenhaven Press, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text:
Article Commentary
Andrew Simmons, “Facebook Has Transformed My Students’ Writing—For the
Better,” Atlantic, November 18, 2013. © 2013 The Atlantic Media Co, as first published in The
Atlantic Magazine. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Reproduced by permission.
Andrew Simmons is a writer, teacher, and musician. He has written for The New York Times,
Slate, and The Believer.
Many people argue that the slang encouraged by social media has a bad effect on student writing.
However, social media can help students, especially male high school students, reveal emotions
and discuss topics that make their writing more powerful and honest. Male students are usually
encouraged to be silent, contained, and not reveal emotions. On Facebook, however, students
routinely discuss personal issues and emotions and receive praise for doing so. This greater
freedom to express themselves improves their writing at school.
The Internet has ruined high-school writing. Write the line on the board five hundred times like
[cartoon character] Bart Simpson. Remember and internalize it. Intone it in an Andy Rooneyesque grumble.
I’ve heard the line repeated by dozens of educators and laypeople. I’ve even said it myself.
Thankfully it is untrue.
Emoticons vs. Emotional Honesty
As a high-school English teacher, I read well over a thousand student essays a year. I can report
that complete sentences are an increasingly endangered species. I wearily review the point of
paragraphs every semester. This year I tried and failed to spark a senior class protest against
“blobs”—my pejorative term for essays lacking paragraphs. When I see a winky face in the body
of a personal essay—and believe me, it has happened enough to warrant a routine response—I
use a red pen to draw next to it a larger face with narrow, angry eyes and gaping jaws poised to
chomp the offending emoticon to pieces Pac-Man-style. My students analyze good writing and
discuss the effect of word choice and elegant syntax on an audience’s reading experience. The
uphill battle is worth fighting, but I’m always aware that something more foreboding than
chronic senioritis lines up in opposition.
However, while Facebook and Twitter have eroded writing conventions among my students, they
have not killed the most important ingredients in personal writing: self-reflection and emotional
honesty. For younger high school boys particularly, social networking has actually improved
writing—not the product or the process, but the sensitivity and inward focus required to even
begin to produce a draft that will eventually be worth editing.
High school is cruel to all genders, an equal-opportunity destroyer of spirit and self-esteem. I’m
focusing on boys because I’ve seen the phenomenon play out more intensely with them. Also, I
was a boy once, and so I understand them better than I understand girls.
The emotional distance fostered by Facebook and other sites can encourage a healthier candor.
When I was beginning high school in 1994 boys knew not to reveal weakness and insecurity.
Girls didn’t seem to like guys who vocalized vulnerability. Athletes usually projected
stereotypically masculine traits: along with imposing physical size, aggressive, even belligerent
confidence, an easy stance, gait, and casual presence, the signs of being comfortable in their own
skins. Even the scrawniest punk guitarists wore hoodies like armor and possessed a prickly
toughness seasoned by the experience of having been bullied in middle school. The climate
demanded stoicism, cool detachment as the default attitude for boys trying not to lose social
standing. Young male attitudes were, as they still are, shaped by music and other forms of pop
culture. Mainstream mid-90s rappers had cold-blooded personas. Even [rock singer for Nirvana]
Kurt Cobain mumbled through interviews, only opening up in cathartic song, where the rawest
admissions could be obtuse and readily cloaked in distortion. Everyone agonized over
problems—height, acne, academic ability, body size, a lack of attention from girls, parents
splitting up, sick grandparents, needy siblings, general alienation—but no one wanted to talk
about them much. At age 14, I was small, smart, and artistic. I wrote well, but the prospect of
writing anything that would permit even a teacher to know what I really thought terrified me.
Spilling my guts in a writers’ workshop with my classmates would have been social suicide.
Social networking has dramatically altered how high-school boys deal with their emotions.
Watching Facebook
I have a Facebook page dedicated solely to my position as an educator. I don’t send friend
requests to students but current and former students can send them to me and I always accept. I
don’t post much, but I keep up with some students and share literature-related links when I
delude myself into thinking they’ll be of interest. Current students often send me requests without
thinking of the possible consequences of being Facebook friends with a teacher. I have made it a
policy to avoid bringing a student’s posts into a conference with a parent or counselor unless
required to do so by law. A few times a week though, I log on and observe what students post.
My observations have reaffirmed the widely held notion that the Internet is no refuge from the
pains of adolescence. It’s a really bad neighborhood. On Facebook and Twitter, students
humiliate, jeer, and shame one another. They engage in antisocial, even criminal behavior—
leaving belligerently racist comments on links, harassing classmates with derogatory posts.
At the same time, the emotional distance fostered by Facebook and other sites can encourage a
healthier candor, too. On Facebook, even popular students post statuses in which they express
insecurities. I see a dozen every time I log on. A kid frets that his longtime girlfriend is straying
and wishes he hadn’t upset her. Another admits to being lonely (with weepy emoticons added for
effect). Another asks friends to pray for his sick little sister. Another worries the girl he gave his
number to isn’t interested because she hasn’t called in the 17 minutes that have passed since the
fateful transaction. Another disparages his own intellect. “I’m so stupid, dad told me to drop out,”
he writes. Another wonders why his parents are always angry, and why their anger is so often
directed at him. “Brother coming home today,” another posts. “Gonna see how it goes.”
Individually these may seem like small-scale admissions. But the broader trend I have witnessed
in the past few years stands in sharp contrast to the vigilance with which my generation guarded
our fears both trivial and deep. In this sense, social networking has dramatically altered how
high-school boys deal with their emotions.
Instead of being mocked for revealing too much, students who share in this way win likes and
supportive comments from male friends. Perhaps part of it is the fact that girls appear to
appreciate the emotional candor and publicly validate it with likes and comments, giving boys
the initiative to do the same. In high-school halls, guards stay up, but online, male emotional
transparency is not only permitted but also celebrated. Surely, the current crop of “sensitive”
rappers has also encouraged this—especially standard-bearer Kanye West, who treats albums
like therapy sessions and doesn’t mind welling up on national television. In addition to their
insecurities, boys share affectionate admissions of platonic love to one another that they wouldn’t
feel as comfortable sharing in person. They post “I admit” and “To be honest” notes on one
another’s pages in which they celebrate fraternal bonds.
Just as social networking frees users from public decorum … it allows my students to safely, if
temporarily, construct kinder, gentler versions of themselves as well.
“You my bro cause you always have time to talk.”
“Even when there no one else you got me.”
However trite, these public expressions may be the seeds of richer revelations.
Writing as Healing
Because it happens on the Internet, the candor is a simulation of how a more evolved young male
culture might operate. Despite the Drake pics captioned with the rapper’s soft-headed couplets,
the fight videos, and the countless time-wasting surveys and games that pollute the average highschool student’s feed, I see the online social universe my students traverse as an improvement
over my high-school terrain. Many of my students grow up in households in which machismo
reigns supreme. They’ve never been allowed to cry. Their mothers and sisters cook and wash the
dishes and clean. They’ve been encouraged to see themselves as dominant, powerful,
swaggering, sullen men, not sensitive and reflective men, powerfully kind, confidently open.
Fostering those traits is a woman’s responsibility, like housework. In this sense, Facebook is a
genuine outlet for the young men I teach. Just as social networking frees users from public
decorum and encourages the birthing of troll alter egos, it allows my students to safely, if
temporarily, construct kinder, gentler versions of themselves as well.
The great news is that this has a positive effect on teaching and learning. My students in 2013 are
more comfortable writing about personal issues than were my classmates in the mid-late ’90s.
When I assign narrative essays, students discuss sexual abuse, poverty, imprisoned family
members, alcoholic parents, gang violence, the struggle to learn English in America—topics they
may need to address, not merely subjects they believe might entertain or interest a reader.
After all, we write for an audience and we write for ourselves too. I see students recognizing the
value of tackling these topics with honesty. I notice that they are relieved when they do so.
Sometimes students address the same topic in several essays over the course of the year,
updating me, their confidante, on the status of a specific situation. When they share these essays
with the rest of the class, they turn the two-way conversation (their writing, my feedback) into a
network. Writing isn’t just about the spilling of guts, obviously, but the transparency encouraged
by social networking has laid the foundation for this freedom. When this freedom results in
powerful, honest writing, it can in turn result in true healing for kids—not just the momentary
reassurance a well-received status update may provide.
• Mark
Bauerlein The Digital Divide: Arguments For and Against Facebook, Google,
Texting, and the Age of Social Networking. New York: Penguin Group, 2011.
• Danah Boyd It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 2014.
• Nicholas Carr The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W.
Norton, 2011.
• Manuel Catells Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age.
Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012.
• Jose van Dijck The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
• Shawn Marie Edgington The Parent’s Guide to Texting, Facebook, and Social Media:
Understanding the Benefits and Dangers of Parenting in a Digital World. Dallas, TX:
Brown Books, 2011.
• Elizabeth Kandel Englander Bullying and Cyberbullying: What Every Educator Needs to
Know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013.
• Christian Fuchs Social Media: A Critical Introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Publications, 2013.
• Joe Grimm, ed. The New Bullying—How Social Media, Social Exclusion Laws and
Suicide Have Changed Our Definition of Bullying, and What to Do About It. Canton,
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Digital Youth Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
• Robert W. McChesney Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet
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the Better. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
• Daniel Trottier Social Media as Surveillance. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2012.
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Each Other. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011.
Periodicals and Internet Sources
• Sarah
Boesveld “‘Overblown and Sensationalized’: Author Says Bullying Issue Is More
Nuanced than Black and White,” National Post, February 23,
• Art Caplan “Is Your Doctor Spying on Your Tweets? Social Media Raises Medical
Privacy Questions,” NBC News, October 21, 2013.
• Daniel Etcovitch “Social Media Doesn’t Hurt My Offline Social Abilities, It Helps
Them,” Huffington Post, November 18, 2013.
• Sam Fiorella “Cyber-Bullying, Social Media, and Parental Responsibility,” Huffington
Post, October 18, 2013.
• Michelle Goldberg “In Defense of Jonathan Franzen,” Daily Beast, September 26,
• Lesley Kinzel “Leave Selfies Alone,” xojane, November 22, 2013.
• Larry Magid “Common Sense Media Report Shines Positive Light on Kids and Social
Media,” Huffington Post, June 26, 2012.
• Irene Maher “Social Media Can Become an Addiction, but You Can Break Free,” Tampa
Bay Times, July 25, 2013.
• Claire Murphy “The Dangers of Being Always On,” PR Week, November 28,
• Nature World News “Social Networking Sites Promoting Eating Disorders,” October 5,
• John Naughton “Twitter and the Transformation of Democracy,” Guardian, September
14, 2013.
• Walter Pacheco “Professor Says Teens’ Social-Media Lingo Hurts Writing
Skills,” Orlando Sentinel, July 18, 2012.
• “Researchers Explore the Impact of Social Networking on Shyness,” July 5,
• Ryan Singel “Google Tweaks Buzz After Overblown Privacy Backlash,” Wired, February
17, 2010.
• Lauren Slavin “The Evolution of Selfie Culture: Self-Expression, Narcissism, or
Objectification?,” feminspire, 2013.
• Adam Tanner “Users More Savvy About Social Media Privacy than Thought, Poll
Finds,” Forbes, November 13, 2013.
• Gunnes Tavmen “The Pathology of Expecting Social Network Websites to Wave the
‘Democracy Flag,'” OpenDemocracy, October 21, 2013.
• Clive Thompson “Teenagers and Social Networking—It Might Actually Be Good for
Them,” Guardian, October 4, 2013.
• David Trifunov “Texting, Social Media Might Be Creating Better Student Writers, Study
Says,” GlobalPost, July 17, 2013.
• Katy Waldman “Jonathan Franzen’s Lonely War on the Internet Continues,” Slate,
October 4, 2013.
Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)
Simmons, Andrew. “Social Media Helps Students Write Better.” Are Social Networking Sites
Harmful?, edited by Noah Berlatsky, Greenhaven Press, 2015. At Issue. Opposing Viewpoints in
d=89f1b605. Accessed 19 Feb. 2019. Originally published as “Facebook Has Transformed My
Students’ Writing—For the Better,” Atlantic, 18 Nov. 2013.
Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3010744227
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