In December 2021 principals everywhere found themselves scrambling to provide assurances to their communities while investigating an increased number of security threats. I was one of those principals, and have become alarmed, not as much by the threats, but by the misinformation being fed to our communities.
Consider that school communities are already taxed by the seemingly never-ending pandemic. Add unsettling news and we are instantaneously brought over the edge. An increase in toxic groupthink amplifies these problems.
I have researched and written about the negative effects of social media distortions, and propose time-tested practices for school leaders and their communities to embrace. For example, start by presenting convincing evidence of truth, and help people reclaim an objective lens. Help them see that misinformation is the dangerous product of an online feedback loop, with algorithms designed to drive more inaccurate news content, further fueling our confusion and concern.
While increasing school tragedies expose the harshest societal realities, an event is still far unlikely to occur. Reinforcing ways to fight online misinformation begins with a recognition of the damage caused, and formulating strategic ways to address panic and anxiety.
These challenges disrupt school communities, so we must find ways to make schools restorative sanctuaries for learning. Recognition starts with identifying the toxic groupthink as a hyperactive hive mind that impairs everyone.
The Hyperactive Hive Mind in Schools
The hyperactive hive mind is groupthink at its worst. It is inflamed by the destructive forces of digital disruptions.
While school violence causes devastating tragedy, students have a far lower chance of being harmed in school than almost any other risk they face. This includes traveling to and from school (opens in new tab), catching a potentially deadly disease (opens in new tab), and suffering from a life-threatening injury through interscholastic sports (opens in new tab). But the hyperactive hive mind fools us into believing the risk is far greater.
People are emotionally connected to their children, and that causes us to override practical thinking and logic. We assess the prominence of a school shooting, based less on the probability and more on the nature of the experience. Scientists refer to this as the awareness heuristic: a mental shortcut we rapidly make to measure the expected chance of something too big for us to understand. These shortcuts are often grossly inaccurate, catalyzed by primal thoughts that are the enemy of higher cognitive processing. Social media aggravates this. In fact, a Twitter study confirms that false information travels so much faster than facts that the frequency occurs fully six times faster.
No wonder school communities endure hyperactive hive mindset. We are inundated with misinformation, and filtering through this can be overwhelming. How do we overcome this and find a path to truth?
Consider two interconnected paths to provide protective solutions: internal (within school) and external (beyond school walls).
Internal: Shield learners and staff within schools in ways that allow them to engage the frontal lobe for higher thinking while protected at school. The climate leaders commit to cause a lasting impact on a child’s experience. Fortifying a school community with the structures to nurture the kind of learning that creates engaging interactive experiences is the answer.
Numerous models promote learner-friendly, comfortable environments. For example, New Jersey’s Positive Behavior Support in Schools System (opens in new tab) is a positive behavior incentive program for individual students and schools. Evidence-based programs should be inclusive and integrated in all communities.
External: Focus on teaching students and families about outside traps we are prone to, and how to find escapes.
Students are away from school for two-thirds of their day. Educators have little control over what students are exposed to, and how to manage the many obstacles and confusion they encounter. This is especially true of negative content and misinformation.
A best practice is to teach self-regulation strategies. Our work assisting students and families in managing the constant distractions and alarming news cycles includes a strong commitment to simplify this information.
Also highlight for families reliable, evidence-based truths. Unveil this, and the statistical probabilities highlighted previously. Teach students and families alternative habits.
Teaching Focused Empowerment in a Distracted World
The Benign Disinhibition Effect
Use social media to initiate positive social media experiences, something referred to as the benign disinhibition effect. Positive, supportive, and monitored groups (opens in new tab) who aid one another anonymously offer a safe and confidential place to seek support.
These are searchable online, and having access to such a group offers an alternative that is healthy for online engagement, similar to the effect of anonymous, in-person support groups.
Diminish Comparison Effects
Many well-known figures address comparison traps by exposing the real version (opens in new tab) of themselves online. They are closing the fantasy gap of a perfect persona who students feel they cannot compare to. It is wonderful to see famous individuals share their vulnerabilities to empower others to feel okay about their own imperfections.
Inhibit Bad Online Behavior
Teach children the damaging effects of misbehavior online (opens in new tab). Online history is easily uncovered by colleges and potential employers through searchable, archived databases. Helping learners recognize that behaving badly online is never kept secret enables them to avoid going down that path before it’s too late.
Remember Online Feedback Loops Make Us Less Intelligent
Help students see that negative social media engagement has an adverse effect on their wellness. In fact, it drives them to be less intelligent (opens in new tab), which has a harmful, and potentially long-term damaging effect on their aspirations and dreams. Using on and offline tools, such as ambient noise, journaling, and gratitude practices, are all methods to fight against the detrimental effects of the hyperactive hive mind and, in turn, individually harmful impacts.
Consolidating these ideas into a framework and implementing these practices can result in groupthink being shifted into productive flow rather than a hyperactive hive mindset.
Students and families need to understand the benefits of solitude and a tranquil absence from the relentless echoes of online rants. Learning to harness this time instead in more constructive ways yields productivity dividends that are remarkably more positive (opens in new tab). This enables whole schools to empower themselves to thrive, rather than suffer.