In September and October 2021, the US Senate held the Protecting Kids Online hearings about the impact of social media on the emotional health of children and teens. The hearings also examined the business practices of social media companies including Meta, TikTok, Snap, and YouTube. Congress was motivated to take action by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen’s release of documents revealing that the company is aware that their platforms can cause harm to users and the Wall Street Journal’s investigation into Facebook’s internal strategies and research.
Among the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal was that more than one in three teen users of Instagram reported negative effects on their mental health after using Instagram, a social media platform owned by Meta, the same company that operates Facebook. These revelations are part of growing national concern about social media’s role in our society and politics, particularly with so much time spent online for learning and social connection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this Teaching Idea, students sharpen their media literacy skills as they begin to evaluate the impact of social media on their lives and question how we can manage social media’s harmful effects.
What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.
Ask students to reflect in their journals about their own social media use. (Note: The term social media refers to the interactions of users in virtual networks. Please refer to the Teacher Glossary below for an overview of popular social media platforms.)
Students should reflect on the following questions:
After students finish journaling, discuss the layered impact of social media by using Project Zero’s 3 Whys thinking routine:
*These companies are owned by Meta.
Begin by sharing the following information with your students:
Social media companies use automated procedures called algorithms to determine what content you see based on factors such as what you search for, click on, or share on the platform. For instance, Facebook uses a point system to determine which posts appear at the top of a user’s feed. As part of this system, “likes” are assigned one point, while other emotion reactions are assigned five points. As a result, posts that gather “angry” reactions are prioritized over those that gather “likes.” Some researchers have criticised social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or Youtube for using algorithms that show users increasingly extreme content.
Then, share the following excerpt from the Guardian article Instagram ‘pushes weight-loss messages to teenagers’ with your students:
Researchers . . . set up a series of Instagram profiles mirroring real children and followed the same accounts as the volunteer teenagers. They then began liking a handful of posts to see how quickly the network’s algorithm pushed potentially damaging material into the site’s “explore” tab, which highlights material that the social network thinks a user might like.
One account that was set up in the name of a 17-year-old girl liked a single post from a sportswear brand about dieting that appeared in her Instagram explore tab. She then followed an account which was suggested to her after it posted a photo of a “pre- and post-weight loss journey”.
These two actions were enough to radically change the material suggested to the fake teenage girl on Instagram. The researchers found her explore feed suddenly began to feature substantially more content relating to weight loss journeys and tips, exercise and body sculpting. The material often featured “noticeably slim, and in some cases seemingly edited/distorted body shapes”. . .
Researchers also replicated the behaviour of a real 14-year-old boy which led to his Instagram explore tab being flooded with pictures of models, many of which appeared to have heavily edited body types.1
Once you have finished reading, discuss with your students:
Place your students in small groups and ask them to brainstorm ideas for how individuals can mitigate some of social media’s negative effects by taking charge of their own social media use. (Some suggestions might include: set time limits on social media apps, turn off or limit notifications from social media apps, and hide or report content you find disturbing.)
As students brainstorm, ask them to discuss the following question:
Once students have finished brainstorming, ask them:
Then, share the following information with them:
The Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, which was introduced in September 2021 to the Senate, proposes new regulations for social media platforms that protect users under the age of 16. Some key regulations in the bill include:
Ask your students:
Do you think these regulations would help to protect young users of social media? Why or why not?
Ask your students to reflect on the following prompt in their journals or on an Exit Card:
Remote Learning Note: If you are teaching remotely, we recommend that you use our Teaching Strategies for Remote Learning and the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.