What Does It Mean to Live with Social Media?

Last Update: November 5, 2021

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.

  1. How Does Social Media Impact You and Your Community?

    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:

    • How much time do you spend using social media on an average day? How do you think your social media use compares to that of other people you know?
    • What are the potential benefits of social media? What are the potential problems?

    After students finish journaling, discuss the layered impact of social media by using Project Zero’s 3 Whys thinking routine:

    • Why might social media matter to me?
    • Why might social media matter to people around me?
    • Why might social media matter to the world?

    Teacher Glossary:

    • Facebook:* Users post comments; share photos, videos, and links to news; shop; join groups
    • Twitter: Users “tweet” short messages and interact with others’ posts.
    • LinkedIn: Users network with other professionals. 
    • Snapchat/Snap: Users share messages, photos with filters and effects, and videos that disappear after viewing.
    • Instagram:* Users post photos and videos on this visually-geared platform.
    • YouTube: Users post and share videos.
    • TikTok: Users create and post videos (up to 15 seconds).
    • WhatsApp:* Users make videos and phone calls; send texts and photos through an internet connection; WhatsApp is heavily used in Latin America and Africa, where it is expensive to make phone calls or text.
    • WeChat: Users can chat, share photos and videos, network with other users, and shop.

    *These companies are owned by Meta.

  2. How Do Algorithms Affect What You See on Social Media?

    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:

    • How did social media algorithms influence what posts appeared in the two constructed accounts?
    • How can social media algorithms negatively affect people? What are other examples of how social media algorithms could push users toward more extreme content?
    • What could be the benefits of having social media algorithms that recommend content to users?
    • If you use social media, have you ever had an emotional reaction to something you see in your feed? How did you feel? (Angry? Frightened? Validated?) Who benefits from you feeling a particular way?
  3. How Should We Manage the Harmful Impacts of Social Media?

    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:

    How effective do you think each of these ideas is at helping to limit the negative impacts of social media?

    Once students have finished brainstorming, ask them:

    • What responsibility do social media companies have to protect their users?
    • What actions (if any) do you think social media companies should take to protect their users?

    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:

    • Ban autoplay on websites and apps
    • Ban push notifications
    • Ban rewarding badges from apps and websites that ultimately encourage more time on the platform
    • Ban “like” buttons and follower counts

    Ask your students:

    Do you think these regulations would help to protect young users of social media? Why or why not?
  4. Final Reflection

    Ask your students to reflect on the following prompt in their journals or on an Exit Card:

    • I came in thinking . . . (What did you already think about social media before these activities?)
    • I’m leaving thinking/wondering . . . (What did you learn? What questions do you still have?)
    • Now I will . . . (What actions can you take?)

Additional Resources

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.

Citations

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