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Learning Styles guru Dr Peter Honey says social media is just a tool – and like any tool, it’s the way that it’s used, not the tool itself, that can be the problem…

Some years ago, when I still had my small publishing company, I hired a young marketing person who was convinced that using social media would increase customer loyalty and therefore, subtly and indirectly, sales. To be honest I had my doubts but at the time – when Facebook and Twitter were still novelties – plenty of people were saying organisations should embrace social media or suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out). So my enthusiastic marketing person sent out cheerful tweets daily and we set up micro-websites linked to our main website, with internet forums catering for different interests, quizzes and games to play and I was persuaded to join LinkedIn and write blogs.

Sadly, none of these activities made any discernible difference to sales, but it was all good fun! I still get daily requests from people I can’t remember ever meeting (but who insist they are friends) inviting me to ‘link up’ and, of course, I have become a prolific blogger. From time to time I also get messages telling me that I have another follower on Twitter, but I am very sorry for my followers because, unlike Stephen Fry, I stopped tweeting ages ago. My grandchildren keep telling me I should be on Facebook but for some reason I’m wary – despite the fact that if Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest in terms of population.

I read that Baroness Susan Greenfield, the well known neuroscientist and popular broadcaster who gave The Anne Frank Lecture 2012, fears that the ‘Facebook generation’ might be damaging the development of their brains. She maintains that being hooked on technology and spending hours in front of a screen could be having a negative impact on our humanity. She says, “Those who spend their time on social networking sites risk losing essential human skills such as reading body language and having empathy”. This is only a hypothesis, but Susan Greenfield’s siren voice is worth listening to.

Social media is neutral, amoral, neither good nor bad. Like any tool – a crowbar for example – it is the way it is used that determines its morality. Technology that is relatively inexpensive and makes it easy for people to find each other and exchange ideas is, on the face of it, invaluable. Even though I’m not on Facebook, I’m far easier to track down electronically than ever before and that has resulted in a welcome increase in queries about learning styles, trainer styles and teamwork roles. People even find my watercolours and help me raise money for my charity, Prisoners Education Trust. None of this would be possible without the ‘magic’ of electronic communication.

Only yesterday I read an article enthusing about how easy it was to establish a do-it-yourself CPD group by searching on-line for, in this case, occupational psychologists and setting up a community that swaps experiences and shares problems/solutions. Interestingly however, in this example I notice the electronic search was restricted to finding people who lived locally so that it would be easy to have face-to-face meetings and get to know each other for real. The best of both worlds.

But sadly, as we all know, social media has its dark side. It seems that distance and/or unanimity embolden people so that they say things they would never have the courage to say to someone’s face. There are tragic cases where children have used social media to hound and bully and bring about despair. Kids have used it to spread malicious rumours about their teachers often ruining their careers. It is certainly the case that during the last ten years more people have been rude to me electronically than in all my previous 60 years.

But, on balance, I can’t help but think that giving people a voice, even when it is inconvenient, is a good thing. The long-term implications for society are hard to predict; almost certainly even less deference and even more trouble for those in authority. The technology may be new (well, newish) but the issue is the familiar one of balancing rights with responsibilities. Users of social media will have to learn how to use their freedom to communicate whilst respecting the rights of other users. A tough lesson for us all.

Credit: Dr Peter Honey will be presenting at The Charity Learning Conference & Awards on 14 November, London. Best known for creating Learning Styles, Dr Honey is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications Ltd (now owned by Pearson) specialising in supplying practical tools that help managers and professionals develop their soft skills He has worked as a management consultant with many blue-chip organisations, is a prolific author on lifelong learning and organisational behaviour and a regular blogger for People Management and Training Journal. He holds numerous Fellowships, including the RSA and the CIPD, is a Patron of the Campaign for Learning and vice-chairman of the Prisoners Education Trust. His personal website, packed with articles and cheerful anecdotes, is www.peterhoney.org