If Americans agree on anything these days, it's that our schools could be much better, and that internet culture is harming our children. I have a simple proposal to address both problems: high school classes on how to use the internet more effectively.
By now the internet has such far-reaching influence that such a pedagogical intervention is called for. Think of all the misinformation books have communicated over the centuries, and how hard society has worked to learn and then teach how to use printed material more effectively. This same effort is now necessary with the internet.
By way of illustration, consider the most commonly consulted "doctor" in American life today: Google, by an order of magnitude. If you have some symptoms, type them into Google and see what comes up. Click on the first few entries, and then decide whether to go see a doctor, take more aspirin, stay home from work or whatever.
Surely this process helps many people identify their maladies, but it can easily mislead. The most highly ranked sites on the internet are not necessarily the best sites, and furthermore human heterogeneity is becoming an increasingly important theme in medicine. Even if the first few Google links give the best answer on average, the chance that it is the best answer for you still may not be very high.
In any case, we can do better. Four years ago, Vox published a guide on how to use the internet to find more reliable sources of medical information. Teaching students how to develop better judgment for all kinds of information would be one of the top priorities of such a course.
The class could also teach students why online exchanges, including on social media and email, end in rancor and hostility more often than do face-to-face exchanges. A lot of arguments simply should not be conducted over email, because they will escalate and lead to hard feelings. Direct signals of human trust and bonding are absent online, and without face-to-face cues it is very easy to misinterpret tone or to read hostility when it is not intended. If students could be taught these realities at an early age, they might engage in fewer frustrating or destructive interactions.
Students, and indeed adults, could also be taught how to use social media more productively. Twitter, for example, tends to be irritating and polarizing when used to express political views. But it is wonderful for following music and the arts, events in other countries (especially if they have little or no political resonance for one's own country), and tracking the progress of science. It wouldn't be hard for teachers to help students learn how to build better Twitter feeds. As it stands now, I frequently meet adults who think that Twitter is nothing but partisan idiots screaming at each other.
Twitter search is one of the most underrated parts of the internet. If I am looking to learn more about a current event, I typically go to Twitter before Google and type in the relevant search term. The results seem more up-to-date, and I will probably be exposed to a wider range of opinions.
This high school class also could teach about phishing, hacking and how to resist and maybe even report bullying. And what about those opaque "privacy agreements" that so many social media companies ask you to read and click "I agree" before using the service? A class could help explain in plain English what you are agreeing to. It could also impress upon students the permanency of many postings on social media, and the value of caution.
It is striking and sad that there is so much over-the-top criticism of social media yet so little faith in education as a possible remedy. As it stands, plenty of teachers give informal advice about how to use the internet, but there isn't much in the way of formal institutions or curriculums. I am not saying this needs to be a full, semesterlong class. But surely internet usage and understanding is worthy of a formal dedication of at least a few weeks of attention, maybe more.
Finally: For all the negative attention the internet receives, I think it would be better for this class to focus on the positive. If an instructor teaches students only which sites to avoid and why, it may just stimulate their appetite to visit those sites. Not every 14-year-old comes to high school already knowing about the incendiary rhetoric on 4Chan, so the class would need a somewhat paternalistic focus.
The internet is, on the whole, one of humankind's greatest achievements. Time spent online can be hugely informative, even rewarding. For all the hours we and our children spend online, however, we can and should be doing more to improve the experience for everyone.
-- -- --
Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."