Filtering social media in schools because it’s a ‘distraction’

Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul said:

according to the [American Association of School Librarians], schools’ top three filtered content areas are social networking sites, instant messaging and online chatting, and games. Such activities aren’t (necessarily) inappropriate or illegal, but they are big honking distractions, and if we want our young people to learn anything during the school day, they must be kept away from these sites.

A growing body of evidence from cognitive science and psychology shows that the divided attention typical of people engaging in “media multitasking” – the attempt to pay attention to two or more streams of information at once – produces shallower, less permanent learning. And let’s not kid ourselves: when students are free to roam the Internet in class or in study periods, divided attention is the result.

Is it possible to use Facebook and Twitter in educationally appropriate ways? Sure – but as technology and education specialist Michael Trucano points out, tech enthusiasts often focus on what’s possible to the exclusion of what’s predictable and what’s practical. What is predictable is that young people, given the chance, will use the web for social and entertainment purposes; what’s practical is to remove that temptation during the school day.


This article misses the point. It’s fearmongering and control-driven and feeds the misbegotten ‘kids these days are bad’ narratives that are so prevalent in older generations. It’s yet another example of ‘we’re not knowledgeable enough to think of any useful ways to utilize these tools so let’s just block them.’

The myth of ‘digital natives’ has been busted time and time again. Research is very clear that while our students are increasingly savvy at using technology for gaming and social purposes, they’re much less proficient at using technology for academic and other productive work purposes. Of course they will not get good at using technology in these ways if we simply block the technologies instead of using them more productively.

Unlike what is stated elsewhere in this article, the ‘real world’ is digital. The real world is technology-suffused. People everywhere use social media and other online tools all the time to accomplish their work. How are educators supposed to prepare students for our new technology-infused information, economic, and learning landscapes in analog school environments?

As my supervising principal said every day of my administrative internship, ‘Classroom management stems from good instruction.’ The issue here is not the technology but rather our unwillingness as educators and citizens (and pundits) to rethink learning, teaching, and schooling.


Here are some tweets that Annie Murphy Paul and I exchanged today. As I read these (and her article), she believes that students simply can’t be trusted or empowered to use social media in class without being distracted. Although she nominally concedes that schools might be able to use social media in productive ways with students, she quickly reiterates that is only ‘possible’ and that it is much more ‘practical’ to simply block these powerful tools for connecting and learning. I disagree with both (and, of course, many of us can point to countless examples all around the world where these are low-level or nonexistent concerns, thus disproving her broad generalizations about students and classrooms). However, when I stated her ideas back to her, she denied them. I don’t know how to otherwise interpret what she said and she won’t clarify. I did invite her to please continue the dialogue in the comment area of either her post or mine. Your thoughts?







15 Responses to “Filtering social media in schools because it’s a ‘distraction’”

  1. The issue here is not the technology but rather our unwillingness as educators and citizens (and pundits) to rethink learning, teaching, and schooling.

    Right on the mark. Fear of change is our worst enemy.

    Mike Schoultz

  2. We didn’t remove TI-83s when students were using them to play games instead of their math etc. Rather we taught appropriate use and modified lessons to increase engagement. This is another opportunity to teach appropriate use and use social media as a learning frontier.

  3. I don’t know, Scott. I think you are removing much of Annie’s nuance here and reducing it to a black and white issue. It is far from cut and dried. I certainly agree with your position, but I don’t think it is in disagreement with much of Annie’s position. Yes – she is far from enthusiastic in her belief that social media can be used in powerful ways with students in a school setting, but she is also quite correct in observing that students (and adults, I might add) often struggle and make poor decisions regarding how they manage their attention – which does interfere with their learning. As my own son points out, his teachers don’t even notice all of the students texting under their desks or in their pockets… or if they do, choose to ignore it. Being distracted or seduced doesn’t make kids (or adults) “bad”. It is completely normal. What we all need to learn is how to be mindful and manage our attention on our own. To this end, you are quite correct – if we don’t give children the context to learn this, they will end up like many of my college students still struggling to manage their own attention and to be mindful of how digital distraction negatively impacts their learning.

    I think the real problem is the *appearance* of mistrust of students to mask educators’ own inability to understand and leverage these new tools and spaces in meaningful, relevant ways. Perhaps this is the biggest flaw of Annie’s thoughts?

  4. David Warlick said it best, “We are putting locks on doors, and the walls are coming down.”

  5. Apologies in advance for what turned out to be a lengthy response…

    Social media is no different than pencil and paper. I doodled a lot in the margins of my physics book. It wasn’t Twitter and Facebook that made me doodle but I doodled nonetheless.

    Social media is the new platform for distraction but not a new cause for it. Doodles, passing notes, sleeping in class, all of the “analog” forms of distraction have just morphed into branded platforms.

    The difference? Sleeping in class never led to anything. Connecting & engaging on social media might. The doodler who grew up to be a graphic designed May have been distracted in class but is now earning a living born out of that distraction. Maybe the students tweeting in class will develop the next great media plafrom.

    Social media can be used for evil, sure. But it has far more potential for good. 2nd graders I my school composed 100 tweets for the 100th day of school in @MsGlembocki class. Things they loved, learned, and experienced in 100 days. They did the full writing process, including paper drafts, and then used class iPads to publish their tweets. It was amazing to see 30 2nd graders engaged the entire day in a writing process that covered both traditional methods & social media. They got instant feedback on their writing from around the world. Not a distraction in the least.

    @MsKertesz, 4th grade ICT, used Twitter to connect with a class in Liverpool, England. They had weekly Skype sessions, did cross-pond spelling bees, and collaborated on Prezis.

    These are just two examples of how social media is used in my building. In very positive ways. Our students are excited about the prospect of their own accounts when they get to the appropriate age. I am confident that she they do have their own account they will use them as productively and positively as our teachers have.

    Nothing beats a good model.

    I’ve written a bunch of things about how we use social media here:

    It shouldn’t be blocked. It should be used. Distraction exists no matter what. Don’t censor a whole medium in fear of distraction.

  6. It’s really disappointing that we are still having this conversation. Thank for your advocacy, Scott. Keep fighting the good fight!

  7. This is a great article and the comments too, add so much. It is really interesting to see that fear of change is still so rampant. Good on all the contributors for trailblazing.

  8. Scott,

    I’m glad you spoke up.
    I understand how social media could be a “distraction” but I think what the focus should be on is that educators need to be mindful and educate students how to use social media and technology appropriately and as learning tools, not just blocking. I understand and agree with your view.

    Viewing the Twitter discussion/disagreement honestly made me feel that the word choice could have been more accurate or the author could have taken a different focus. Her strong stance and refusal to admit/change makes me question both the author’s educational experience, at least relating to social media in the classroom, and motive, possibly just to give the article attention for promotion purposes.

    Just my thoughts, but I agree with you. I would just move on from this one.

  9. Scott,

    I struggle with this mindset on a daily basis in my school district. Teachers are sent out into a gunfight with a stick. We ask teachers to engage our students but we don’t provide them the tools to reach them. When I look at our carpentry classes and see the heavy machinery that could be used in a negative and dangerous way I think what a miracle it must have been to even allow saws, nail guns and metal grinders in schools. How much more dangerous can social-networking sites be? My experience has been that if you trust students to act responsibly they usually make you proud. We can no longer allow a few knuckleheads to shut down the entire network and prevent magical learning experiences from occurring. We can no longer be afraid of the worst-case scenario. The risk is so worth the reward. @ryan_schubart #UKSTL

  10. Scott,

    Great Article. I am right in the middle of this now. Last August, every student at my school was given a MacBook Air Laptop. We did all the typical things a 1:1 school does, except one. We didn’t train students on the acceptable use of the laptop. Or the acceptable use rather of social media in the classroom. Is it appropriate for students to be on Facebook during class? Teachers told me that it was very difficult to monitor their screens to make sure they were focused on their current classwork. They complained about this a LOT. They reported that students were quick to swipe screens so it gave the appearance of being on task.

    I can’t count how many parents called my office asking me why their child was on Instagram and Twitter for 4-5 hours a night and thus would not go to sleep until the early hours of the morning. Do you think the parents themselves could have set some rules for how the laptop would be used in their home? Sure! Did they? No.

    And what happened when the district finally figured out how to filter content? The students found Chrome Extensions to circumvent the filters and thus violated the student code of conduct for putting a proxy on a district owned device. Over half of my 2400+ school had a proxy called Zenmate on their MacBook. Sadly, sites like You Tube were blocked too. I found it funny that we gave the students the link to Khan Academy pre-loaded in Chrome, but none could access the videos since they are mostly housed at You Tube.

    Bottom line. I can’t win. I want my staff to embrace social media as a tool, but they have already seen it as something damaging. Why did this happen? Honestly, the district didn’t spend enough time PLANNING. We could have addressed these issues during a planning year. They pulled this together in less than 3 months. CRAZY!

    • Ken,
      I am in the same boat. Two years ago, all of the students from second to 12th grade were given iPads. Teachers were given them just prior to the kids’ distribution. The district has blocked social networking sites. The district cannot stop the games. I agree that the social networking sites could be of benefit, but without them, the kids turn to LLAMA DUCK. In addition, teachers have not been trained on how to effectively use the technology that we have. It has created a huge goat rodeo. The kids know so much more about technology than the average teacher. I think that our teachers have also seen the use of technology in general as damaging.

  11. Great discussion Scott. Social media can be a distraction. I get distracted by it every day! But given what I gain from my online networking, the price of distraction is a small one to pay. And some of the distractions are remarkably educational too!

    I sympathise with education authorities who fear the problems and PR disasters that social media faux pas can create for themselves, for students and for teaching staff, but I still think that their fears are overblown. As for the question of distraction, that seems to be primarily a matter of classroom management. With competent teachers it becomes manageable.

    I’m confident that if we teach our students to use social media productively during class time, the benefits will flow and, despite the increased activity, the faux pas will decline. It will take social media savvy teachers – and that’s a challenge because there are not enough of them – but those who are up to the task will produce well connected, self-managed, self motivated learners.

  12. I found it interesting that student use of their personal cell phones or smart phones was never mentioned in her article. Battening down the hatches does nothing to keep kids off of social media sites during the day if they have a smart phone. This is exactly why I fought to unblock all of the sites in my school. We were only fooling ourselves.

  13. This is awesome thanks for sharing with us.

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