Four things teachers can do to help young people critically navigate social media

By Luci Pangrazio

Social media is an important element of nearly every young person’s life. Many use platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook every day. But these platforms are not neutral. Platform operators are shaping the way young people use social media.

In this post I look at what is happening and how teachers can help students navigate social media platforms and critically reflect on issues they may face on a daily basis.

Social media is part of life for most young people today

Social media platforms are integral to maintaining and extending social relationships for most young people today. They provide opportunities to experiment with identities, discover information, learn, engage with civic and political life, and generally make sense of growing up. For many young people social media is no longer something they ‘use’, but rather a fabric woven into all aspects of day-to-day life.

Social media platforms are not neutral

Despite their popular appeal, it is important not to see social media as neutral tools that young people are free to use in any way they wish. Instead, social media behaviours and actions are shaped in particular ways that are determined by platform operators. Consequently, using social media invokes a wide range of social and technological issues that most young people learn about through an awkward (and often public) process of trial and error.

Young people need support when using social media

Unfortunately, young people are given very little guidance and support in dealing with important everyday issues such as balancing privacy with social visibility, the implications of metrics (i.e. likes, number of friends), constructing digital identities, determining the credibility of news and information and knowing what to do about potentially harmful digital content.

It is now widely accepted that if young people are to capitalise on the opportunities social media offers, they need support to address these complex issues. Some teachers might see this as beyond the school curriculum. Yet it is increasingly acknowledged that social media platforms can be important to young people’s learning.

Social media education can be integrated into the curriculum

Cultivating critical understandings of social media are therefore an important part of supporting young people’s social development and likely to be intrinsically engaging to them. Just as schools play an important role in teaching young people to engage critically with what they read, it is now falling to schools to support young people in what they post, re-post, like and tweet.

This comparison with reading aligns with the idea that social media are best understood as texts. While they are different from traditional texts, teachers can initiate critical conversations around their structure, design and how they position users.

Like traditional texts they can be deconstructed, thereby opening up opportunities to imagine how they might be re-designed and ‘written’ differently.

From this perspective then, here are four ways that schools and teachers can support young people in the social media issues they face.

Four things schools and teachers can do

1. Find out what students are doing with social media and what challenges they face

Adults assume a lot about how young people use social media. Much of this is informed by sensational news stories that exaggerate the more negative aspects of use, such as narcissism, bullying and addiction. A good starting point for teachers might be to find out which social media platforms their students use and how they actually use them.

In my own research I have found young people have quite specific, niche uses for each platform and are far more cautious and self-aware than first thought. These initial investigations could be done informally through a class discussion or a whole class audit or inventory. The Australian Communication and Media Authority have some useful infographics that could be used as a comparison.

2. Develop understandings of the structure of social media platforms

When encouraging students to approach social media as texts, it is essential to help them understand how these texts are structured. Just as we teach students how essays, poems, films and books are structured, why not teach students the structure of social media platforms?

Teachers need not be experts. Starting with the interface, students could analyse the layout, use of images, colours and text of their most-used platforms – asking critical questions of how these design choices position them as users. They could explore critical questions of how platforms ‘colonise’ the internet through social buttons. Then – as an exercise in persistence – students could be set the challenge of reading the terms and conditions of each, highlighting key points or issues of concern.

All of these exercises and activities will help students and teachers develop conversations and ways of discussing social media that is not dictated by platform operators.

3. Provide opportunities to critically reflect on the construction and interpretation of digital identities

The misleading notion of ‘digital natives’ encourages adults to assume that young people intuitively know how to construct a digital identity. Yet the semiotics of the digital are nuanced and complex and not all young people are equally adept at reading these subtleties.

While teachers should not monitor student’s digital profiles, they can provide in-class opportunities for students to critically reflect on how they represent themselves digitally. There are excellent free online tools to use, such as the video Are you living an Insta lie?, and the personality prediction program Apply Magic Sauce. These could be used in various ways to open up critical conversations around the construction and interpretation of digital identities. This could be approached as a writing task, group discussion or whole class discussion.

4. Analyse how news is presented on social media

Social media is becoming an increasingly important source of news for many people. Yet the news stories that appear on social media are the result of complex algorithms designed by platform operators that determine who and what we see. While this helps users cope with the vast amounts of information on social media, it also presents a skewed perspective of the world.

Critical understandings of news on social media should begin by analysing the function of platform mechanisms including hashtags, metrics, personal data and algorithms. Building understandings of how these mechanisms lead to filter bubbles, echo chambers and viral content is essential to understanding news in the contemporary era. 

While the popularity of different platforms will ebb and flow, social media is here to stay. Some aspects of social media use can only be learnt through experience, however, providing young people with the time and space to critically consider the structure of the platforms that they are using, how they are using these platforms and how this use aligns (or not) with their digital aspirations should be an important part of contemporary education. 

While social media might not yet be a core part of the curriculum, these are some of the most useful technology lessons that young people can get from school.

Luci Pangrazio is a postdoctoral research fellow in digital literacies at the Centre for Research for Educational Impact (REDI) at Deakin University, Melbourne. Her recent book Young People’s Literacies in the Digital Age: Continuities, Conflicts and Contradictions was published in 2018 by Routledge.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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