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Is modern media killing critical thinking?

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Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we can now see exactly how many hours and minutes we spend on our phones on a daily basis, as the tech to which we slave becomes strangely encouraging in getting us to develop ‘good’ habits. The question is, how much of this time is spent in productivity or entertainment, and how much is spent in the mindless scrolling and perusal of the internet and social media?

Modern technology is amazing. It has connected us in ways we never thought possible, created untold opportunity in some of the farthest corners of the world, enabled many of us to work from anywhere, anytime, and provided access to encyclopaedias’ worth of information at the touch of a button. But as with any good invention, it has a dark side. The question is, is that dark side killing critical thinking, and if it is, why does that matter?

Critical thinking is a deliberate approach to thinking, in which we obtain, review and examine information to determine its validity. Practised well, it requires curiosity and a willingness to pursue information wherever that may lead. It requires us to suspend our disbelief and to accept that the views we hold currently might not be the right ones, or complete ones, and that they may need to change. Importantly though, it is conscious. We must consciously consider how we think and how we know something to be true.

Think instead to the average evening spent scrolling the internet or social media. How many different platforms do you consume? How often do you engage? How often do you find yourself drawn into a random TikTok video, or an Instagram Reel, putting your faith in the person that’s pedalling their message? How often do you question what they say?

Comments on social media posts and articles often descend into a spat full of personal jibes about a person’s beliefs. Many comments do in fact question the validity of the message being shared, but few offer a quality-researched argument of what is actually right. Add to that the power of opinion – is there actually a right answer? – and it’s no surprise that much of it is counterproductive.

Academics agree. This paper by Cheng et Al., (2022) highlights that social media usage is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, social media usage narrows the digital gap and can thus improve critical thinking ability by providing access to relevant information, but when considered in terms of dependence – how much time is spent and impact it has – there is a negative correlation between social media usage and critical thinking. Ultimately, some social media is good, while too much is bad. Similarly, this research by Ophir et al. at Stanford University (2009) compared the cognitive ability of ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ media multitaskers, considering the impact of those that spend a lot of time consuming a lot of data sources. Heavy media multitaskers were defined as processing multiple incoming streams of information, and it was found that they are more susceptible to external interference. What this means is that they have an overall diminished capacity for critical thinking, instead applying less and less dedicated attention to a single task – the antithesis of critical thinking if you will. What’s more, it found that potentially, there is a fundamental difference in the thinking processes used, depending on whether an individual is a light or heavy media user.

Interestingly, time might not be the only factor; approach might be too. A study by Yang & Ahn (2007) found that critical thinking in students improves if their time is spent in online discussion forums. It makes sense, they are actively engaging in a discussion or debate, regardless of the medium used to hold that debate, and we know that debate is a good developer of critical thinking.

What becomes clear is that social media isn’t to blame, but how we interact with it is. The problem is its easy for us to fall into bad habits, enhancing our susceptibility to truth bias and the illusory truth. What’s more, it allows us to find our ‘tribe’: that group of people that share our thoughts and opinions, and make us feel safe, igniting our security from groupthink, and making us happy with our confirmation bias. The other challenge is that social media is geared to prey on our emotions, not our reasoning skills, which gives us a more emotive reaction to what we see, read, and hear. More emotion typically means less critical thinking, so this too is a problem. We can thank the algorithms for that, as they actively seek to present us not only with things that align with our beliefs and interests, but which are likely to drive us to engage.

So yes, in large part social media is killing critical thinking, because we are letting it. That’s why we need to remember to practise our critical thinking skills, employing lateral thinking, and continuing to use the rule of five.