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Social Media: What's the harm (or good)?

Challenges, algorithms, new Church guidelines on their use, parents' doubts. We enter a fascinating but intricate world in an interview with Luca Botturi, digital education expert.
Maria Acqua Simi

Luca Botturi was born in 1977, and is a professor of Media in Education at the University of Applied Sciences in Locarno, Switzerland, and president of the San Benedetto Foundation, which includes three schools in Lugano. He is married and father of six children, and is an expert in digital technologies applied to education. He recently published two novels in Italy that address these issues and the third is forthcoming. We caught up with him for a chat about the world of social media. A world that, he explains, is a challenge not only for young people but also for adults.

Some recent news events – such as that of the five-year-old boy who was run over and killed by a group of boys who were filming a video in a Lamborghini for a YouTube challenge – show us the dimensions of a phenomenon that is perhaps getting out of hand. Can you help us understand what we mean when we say "social"?
Social media began as an idea full of momentum: to allow anyone to have their voice heard on the internet. Today we find different platforms and services under this label, from messaging to streaming to "classic" socials like Facebook or Instagram. They are a formidable communication tool, but also an immense free stage that, over time, has also generated formats such as the challenge. Not only can you show yourself, but if you want to be seen, you have to follow rules that tell you that you have to all the time. This can push you, especially if you do not already have a strong identity or good content, to imitate things that "work" and not develop creativity. The impact is especially strong on adolescents, who are at a stage of developing their identity, and who often tend to find security by adapting themselves to a set of stereotypes. But without knowing how to handle the consequences.

From an educational point of view, it is a problem.
The educational emergency arises from the fact that we have never been in a situation where it was so easy to show off and expose oneself. Not to mention the amount of time that social media takes up and the amount of mental space it occupies. They are a huge channel of content that constantly reaches people, hammering them, shaping them. This is clearly an opportunity for those learning to choose what to watch, but also a place where unhealthy relationships can develop, from bullying to grooming to exasperatingly polarizing debates. This has challenged those who educate, both parents and teachers.

Social networks have also changed the world of information...
Yes. Today we can search for everything from our smartphones: stock market data, songs, news. Information always finds a way to reach us, even when we are doing something else, with notifications and alerts. The effect we see on younger people is that too much information, paradoxically, has generated skepticism, distrust and disinterest. Yet it is crucial to understand how and where to get informed, because our democracy (how can we go to the polls if we have poor, incomplete or false information?) and also social solidarity (can there be cohesion if everyone receives different or opposite information to their neighbor?) depends on it.

Why was the system designed this way?
The point is not only to "learn how to use the tools," as is sometimes said, because social networks are not neutral. The largest and most popular social networks were born and exist for commercial purposes, and a user who flickers from one piece of content to another is considered "the optimal customer." It is no coincidence that the web giants make their money by showing us personalized advertisements after profiling us. More clicks, means more data and more targeted advertising (which in Meta's case is 90 percent of revenue). Except that the intensive use of our preferences severely limits the opportunity to come across content "other" than us. It is as if we are locked in a bubble, which deludes us into thinking that we live in a world where we are always right and everyone thinks like us.

How to get out of this vicious circle?
On the one hand, one can start curating and educating one's social profile by following reliable people or channels. On the other, it is necessary to look for complete and transparent news elsewhere, perhaps by going to qualified news outlets. Finally, we can choose to get out of the digital world once in a while and discuss with people we know, attend an event, read a book, or question an expert.

However, there is also a problem of attention. We are no longer used to reading in-depth information, we scroll quickly from one news story to another...
Yes, on a web page the attention threshold is now only a few seconds, which means that a user is unlikely to pause and recognize a quality piece of information from one that is not. Attention must be trained, like all our faculties. Today people are no longer used to reading, for example. And the very young who have grown up in the digital age can hardly watch a two-hour movie with plot complexities. Even dialoguing and following a conversation is increasingly difficult. It is necessary to re-educate the gaze, train patience and also silence, which is a fundamental condition for reflection and being able to face oneself and others. Young people today - and perhaps many adults as well - are afraid to be silent, to be disconnected. To be silent today is a revolutionary gesture. And it must be part of the educational process.

Luca Botturi

Many people, young and old, want to become influencers. By now there are academies and schools that teach how to do so…
I always tell my students that statistically it is easier to play in the Champions League than to become rich and famous influencers. Sure, there are a lot of "instructions for use" for breaking through in the digital world on the web and even off the web. But I believe we need to broaden our horizons. I start from a fact of experience, and study: when I talk to young people and ask them why they are on social media, the most common answer is, "Because I am bored." The real point then is: what does our young peoples' lives consist of? When we give our children a smartphone in their hands, we need to know that we are offering them an environment, not just a tool. And the question should not be "what is the harm?" but "what is the good?" in what we propose to them, as Franco Nembrini always reminds us. In an educational relationship where there is a beautiful and meaningful proposal, social networks can become allies, because they are a formidable information channel, they allow one to weave relationships, keep up to date, deepen our interests. Only today they are mostly used to fill "empty time."

How do you educate about their use? It is a question that also applies to adults....
It all comes down to educating, and educating ourselves as adults, about taste. Like when you learn to drink wine and slowly, by dint of tasting, you understand which is worth choosing and which is not. This is done not through sermons or lectures, but through example and accompaniment. The same goes for social media, especially if they are then used to broaden the gaze. I always encourage students not to stop at Instagram, but to go and learn about photography and great photographers, because the world of communication through images is much bigger and more beautiful than what social media propagates. If we talk about TikTok, I invite them to explore the universe of cinema in all its nuances.

What advice do you give parents?
The real challenge is to come up with a sensible gradation. Today we are driven to think that a 10- or 11-year-old child without a smartphone is sick, but who said that? This is simply not true. Rather, we can imagine a path in which we educate, step by step, to use mobiles and then to have access to the internet. Each family has its own rhythms and dynamics, but there are some common rules that can help: for example, having a specific time during the day where the whole family is disconnected, a time where we do something together, even if it is just setting the table. Or use social media in a proactive way: if there is a nice video, instead of posting it on the family chat, watch it together and discuss it. If the digital becomes a dialogue experience and not something to be handled in solitude, then it can be really useful. Sharing things opens a channel that also proves important when it becomes difficult to talk and understand young people, especially in adolescence.

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You said it is possible to learn how to inform oneself, each person finding their own mode. The Vatican recently published some guidelines for engagement with social media. What are your thoughts on this?
It is a very balanced and realistic document. Whoever edited it has a deep understanding of the digital world, its mechanisms and implications. I found the metaphor of sharing a meal very interesting, a concrete example to say that the decisive point is to encounter people, because it is in the encounter that the Mystery of God is manifested. Then the real question is whether these tools can facilitate, and in what way, this kind of encounter, of closeness. The invitation that the Church makes is to make itself present in this area as well: not to maximize the number of likes, but to seek new spaces for dialogue. We must remember, however, that we do this with tools that are not designed for this purpose.

How do you adapt to the format without losing authenticity?
Adapting to the format and language of the social networks you use is a necessity, otherwise the algorithms penalize you by making you invisible. The difficulty is maintaining your originality, because if you go to imitate a language that is not your own, you will immediately come across as not true to your listener. And it is also useful to remember that there are themes that are not suitable to be communicated on social media, just as there are things that are better rendered in a book and others in a movie... If you want to make an original contribution – of faith or cultural – it takes a lot of work for the communication to be effective. A style must be found, knowing that we are in a world that encourages polarization and division. However, this commitment should not make us cross-eyed: we often tend to devalue neighborly and local contact because we invest resources and attention in global platforms, but we should not forget that personal, flesh-and-blood relationships are still a great value. Perhaps the truly great value that we must not lose.