The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft a-gley.
I’d planned to hunker down the first week of February and write a post about using social media for good. However, life intervened and it didn’t get done. In retrospect, that was good because things happened that led me to think about social media in a different way.
The first event had to do with an education technology conference in Seattle. I attended a concurrent session presented by Conn McQuinn who has recently devoted a good chunk of his professional time to studying neuroscience in learning. The title of his session was “Being a Well-Adjusted Cyborg.” One of the first things he said was, “Neuroscience and research can help us make better and more intentional choices about using technologies.” He went on to say, “We (educators) often adopt new technologies and/or use them without truly reflecting on their impact.” I was hooked.
Here are two points he made that deserve consideration.
Point #1: confronted with all the outside stimuli constantly bombarding us, our brains sort out what we need to pay attention to using three criteria:
- things/people we care about
- dangerous things.
Point #2: Maslow’s hierarchy identified physiological and safety needs as people’s highest priorities. Not so. Conn says our need for love or belonging supersedes our need for food, clothing, security, et cetera.
What does this have to do with technology in general and social media specifically? Let me frame this question more clearly with a few additional questions.
How do you feel about your smartphone? Where do you keep it at night—in another room or on the nightstand next to your bed? Have you ever retraced your steps to retrieve your phone after leaving it at home? Do you find yourself surreptitiously (or even openly) checking social media sites and email while attending meetings, during meals with family or friends, while watching a movie or engaging in some other recreational activity? If so, does this mean you are addicted to your phone or to social media? Perhaps. But it may also indicate that you have unwittingly fallen for triggers intentionally incorporated into the design of mobile devices and online apps—behavior you can change through awareness.
Remember, our brains are wired to pay attention to novelty, people and things we care about, and danger. Mobile devices offer us ready access to all three of these attention grabbers via the apps we use. We never have to be bored, or feel isolated and while we may not enjoy things that feel threatening, negative attention online is nearly impossible for targets of such vitriol to ignore. Does understanding what’s behind our compulsion to check Facebook or Twitter help check that behavior? I think it can, if we make more thoughtful decisions about what technologies we use and when we use them as opposed to just going with the initial impulse to see who has ‘liked’ our latest posts or to watch the latest video gone viral.
Social media in a crisis
At precisely the same time I was listening to Conn’s presentation, a 19-year-old former student walked onto his high school campus in Parkland, Florida, pulled a fire alarm, and started shooting students as they evacuated the building. As has been the case since the early days of social media, students and teachers used their smartphones throughout this disaster. Some were reaching out to friends and family members. Others were posting photos and video to social media. It was reported that a few teachers used email to coordinate with one another to try to figure out what was happening and help insure student safety. All these behaviors mirror the points Conn made.
We’ve read and heard stories about such behavior before. I remember that in 2008 during terrorist attacks in Mumbai, police feared that terrorists would monitor social media posts to keep tabs on police activity as they prepared to rescue hostages. I thought about the millions of people who turned to social media in the hours and days following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and how the friends, family members, and neighbors of people stranded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 came to their rescue thanks to messages posted online when more traditional emergency response teams were overwhelmed by the number of calls they were receiving. Closer to home, I know two school administrators who have dealt with campus shootings in their own districts.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, some pundits opined that students with smartphones endangered themselves and others because they were distracted as they posted messages (so they weren’t getting to safe places) or they were making noise that could have alerted the shooter to hiding places (e.g., notification sounds, talking). However, building on what Conn said about neuroscience and social media, I wondered what might happen if we had serious conversations about effective use of social media during disasters, both man-made and natural. I don’t want to give the impression that school shootings are a given that we cannot prevent because I do not believe that’s true. But there are plenty of other crises where thoughtful use of smartphones could be extremely helpful as well.
Being prepared should include social media strategies
My suggestion is to take the three things that capture our attention and sort out ways social media could be used to get critical information where it needs to go in safe, timely ways. We teach adults and students how to evacuate buildings during a fire or ways to protect themselves physically during an earthquake or lock down. Why not think ahead of time about social media strategies they can use during emergencies that would be beneficial. Take the idea a Parkland teacher had to use email and text to connect with fellow teachers and students and turn that into a plan. Or instill in students the need to silence their phones and wait to contact parents and friends until they are in a safe(r) place so they aren’t distracted during critical moments. Discuss when sharing specific information about specific locations or events via social media is helpful and when it might be a dangerous thing to do (and why).
Parents and students already view smartphones as lifelines and have since the events of 9/11. Perhaps it’s time to have frank discussions about ways to make these lifelines as safe and effective as possible.
Burns was right. “The best laid schemes” may still go awry, but it’s better—especially in times of catastrophe—to have a plan than not.
Resources for follow-up
- “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns (1745)
- Conn McQuinn’s website, www.mcquinnable.com
- “What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation” in Harvard Business Review, November 26, 2014.