Is Twitter Making Kids Smarter?

(Photo: Jemimus)

(Photo: Jemimus)

In the Globe and Mail, Clive Thomas argues that all the time kids spend on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs may be making them better writers and thinkers.  Thomas cites the work of Andrea Lunsford, an English professor at Stanford, who recently compared freshman composition papers from 1917, 1930, 1986, and 2006 and found that, while the average rate of errors hasn’t changed much since 1917, students today write longer, more intellectually complex papers:

In 1917, a freshman paper was on average only 162 words long and the majority were simple “personal narratives.” By 1986, the length of papers more than doubled, averaging 422 words. By 2006, they were more than six times longer, clocking in at 1,038 words – and they were substantially more complex, with the majority consisting of a “researched argument or report,” with the student taking a point of view and marshalling evidence to support it.

“Student writers today are tackling the kinds of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection,” Prof. Lunsford concluded.

Lunsford believes the shift is partially driven by all the “life writing” (long emails, posts on TV discussion boards, blog posts, etc.) students now do outside the classroom.  “They’re writing more than any generation before,” she says.

Of course it is also possible that there is no causal relationship whatsoever between all that “life writing” and those freshman comp essays, as approximately 1 billion other factors (including, as Thomas points out, higher educational standards and better information availability) may also have contributed …

(HT: The Daily Dish)


No way does this have anything to do with social media


As a follow-up, personally I would guess this has more to do with Wikipedia than social media


2006 appears to be too early for FB and Twitter. Google and blogging on the other hand probably come into play.

Kevin Pellatiro

Is data from 2006 the best determination of Twitter's mainstream influence? Has the length and complexity exploded since 2006 in correlation with the expanding reach of social media sites?

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It ought to be easy to test: compare the 2006 kids to 1996 kids, and split the 2006 kids according to their actual use of social media.

Jason Altabet

If they had compared students who tended to use a lot of social media to those who did not, or even tracked how over the last several years where social media really exploded freshman did compared to when they had access to the internet, but less social media, something could be said. However, none of that was done, so this seems to really show absolutely nothing.


It seems to me that standards have gone up. More students are applying for colleges, meaning schools can be more selective on who they can choose. Students are forced to improve their writing if they want to compete while the universities can choose the cream of the crop.

Shane L

Neil Postman's 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" warned that the spread of television, a visual and emotive media, at the cost of the printed word, was damaging society in a number of ways. I'd love to know what Postman would have thought of the internet, rich with imagery and sound, but where text has also restored its dominance in surprising ways.

In this case, though, I can imagine that academia has become more compartmentalised in the last century, and general articles unsupported by evidence and references probably just became less desirable as time went on. The students might have been forced to conform to these different standards.

As for length of papers, many an observer has pointed out that brevity is the soul of wit.


He would probably lament the rise of instagram, pinterest, vine, and youtube.

slip mahoney

I would not ignore the use of word processing programs. I know I was often too lazy to retype a paper in college, even though I knew it could be easily improved. Now rewrites/edits are a piece of cake.


It's also much easier to do research online (even if it's only pulling up a Wikipedia article), than to travel to a library and hunt through the stacks.



Eric M. Jones

It just part of the Hive-Mind. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Steve Cebalt

To say that social media "life writing" makes students better writers (because they produce more sheer volume) is like saying people should be better at giving speeches since the advent of the telephone, because they spend so much time talking. It just does not follow, logically.

A related article:

I think the Internet and social media, like other media before it, will make smart people smarter, and may indeed make dumb people dumber.

Eric M. Jones

>>"Steve...It just does not follow, logically."

I am entirely ready to believe, and I think the data shows, that people speaking improves the speaking ability and speech quality of people. I think the exercise of nearly any human function improves the function.


I dunno... I suppose it depends on what you mean by speech quality. If you're just looking at diction &c, perhaps. If you're looking instead at content, I know all too many people who run their mouths constantly without saying anything of value.


I like Jimmy Kimmel's explanation: kids today have cut-and-paste and Wikipedia.

nemo from bravos

With access to the Internet, people have more information available and can copy entire ideas and just changing a few words. This is the reason that the articles today are longer and more complex.


I would not credit "social media" as much as exposure to good comment sections, online forums, and familiarity with processes like the Wikipedia edit process.

It doesn't take much time on the internet to be exposed to the necessity of citing reference material.

Even in horrible corners of the internet, like youTube comment sections, you can find intelligent discussions and argument. You also see this in some people's/group's Facebook pages, even if the trivial stuff is the lion's share.

It might take a little experience to recognize and learn WHAT is intelligent, but at least a kid today has the opportunity to be exposed to it, and participate in it.


I don't think that citing Stanford as a reference is fair. Stanford students have never been a fair nor accurate representation of the general population. I would argue that the age of twitter and facebook is actually deteriorating the English language. Instead of needing to sit down and articulate your thoughts, you simply type a sentence into a wifi or data enabled device and off you go!

Sure, social media could enable the engagement of younger children to ideas and issues in a way that has never been done before but which 13 year old do you know is looking up #worldnews?

Saying that Stanford students write good essays is like going to a tomato farmer and saying he's good at faring tomatoes; you're saying students at a higly-respected, highly exclusive, educational institution- are smart.