On the heels of Kathryn Schulz’s essay on the impact of Twitter on her writing comes high school teacher Andrew Simmons’ equally thoughtful explanation of how "Facebook Has Transformed My Students' Writing—for the Better:"
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…. 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….
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.
For Schulz (and for me), tweeting and blogging offers some of the same emotional rewards as what I think we’d both classify as "real" (i.e. paid and published, but mainly paid— true writers are completely mercenary about their work), but in the psychological equivalent of a low-nutrition, energy-shot form. At my age, and because of the way I use it, Facebook isn’t about self-discovery so much as self-presentation and keeping up with a few friends. But if I were younger, I can imagine it working the way Simmons describes.
The contrast between these essays serves as a reminder of how differently the same medium can affect users at different stages in their lives, or with different skills. It reminds me of this recent study (behind a firewall) of the impact of video games at TV on children’s psychosocial adjustment: yes, it concludes that playing three hours per day or more games has no discernible impact on children’s levels of aggression or sociability, but it covers 5- and 7-year olds, who probably aren’t playing a lot of Quake 4 or GTA 5. Assuming these kids are playing games that are age-appropriate, applying the results to older kids, or to violent games, or to “gaming” generally (as if that were a useful category) involves making a bunch of leaps that probably aren’t warranted.