Exploring the Impact of Social Media | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Students work together in classroom

Exploring the Impact of Social Media

Students explore how social media has changed the way people consume information and reflect on their social media use.


One 50-min class period


English — UK


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.


About This Lesson

This is the fourth lesson in a unit designed to help teachers have conversations with students about media literacy in a critical, reflective and constructive way. Use these lessons to help students reflect on the changing media and information landscape; understand how this landscape impacts individuals, communities and society; and consider how they can thoughtfully and responsibly engage with content they encounter online and in print. This learning can also help them become conscientious content creators. Supporting students to develop as critical consumers and creators of information is vital for their well-being, their relationships and our democracy.

This lesson teaches students about how social media has changed the way people consume information, and encourages them to reflect on their social media use. Students begin the lesson by reflecting on the impact of inventions, and on the benefits and drawbacks of social media. They then explore how social media has altered the information landscape and the methods that social media companies use to keep people engaged on their platforms. They finish the lesson by reflecting on their own social media use.

How can developing our media literacy support our well-being, our relationships and our democracy?

  • How has social media impacted the information landscape? 
  • How and why does social media impact people’s behaviour?
  • Students will understand how social media has impacted the information that people consume. 
  • Students will reflect on their relationship to social media.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes the following student materials:

  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 2 handouts 
  • 1 video

The arrival of social media has impacted how people consume, share and create information. It has given everyone around the world with access to the Internet a platform to share their views, a place to engage with a never-ending flood of information, access to personalised content, and spaces to debate from a distance with those who hold different views. 

In the past, putting aside people’s personal networks, people used to get information from a limited number of sources: printed materials, such as books, newspapers and magazines, the radio and television. This meant a small group shaped the information people consumed and made it difficult for those without access to those organisations and corporations to challenge dominant narratives. However, it also meant that everyone had access to similar information, which made it easier to construct a collective story and a shared sense of reality. 

The absence of the Internet and globalised communication systems also meant that people were more closely connected to those they encountered who held diverse perspectives – they were part of the same local or national community – so while there were differences, people could also see similarities. 1 This meant there was more of a social glue, disagreements tended to be managed more politely and people were not solely defined by their views. 

The Internet and social media have brought in a new era: anyone can create content for others and there are countless online information platforms. This has made the sharing of information more democratic, has allowed anyone to express their views to people everywhere, and has meant that people can seek out information that aligns with their interests. 2 In this new information space, what people think has become an important part of their identity, of how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them. 3  

These changes have also allowed misinformation to flourish in new ways. While some of the information available on these platforms comes from mainstream news outlets, which tend to prioritise certain codes of practice, like accuracy, truth and impartiality, other content comes from bloggers, influences, amateur journalists and alternative outlets, which do not necessarily abide by the same codes. 

Moreover, unlike most traditional news outlets, social media companies do not charge people for the content they consume. Instead, they make money through targeted advertising and, therefore, have a vested interest in keeping people engaged on their platforms for as long as possible. 4 Everything an individual does online leaves a digital footprint in the form of data. Tech companies use that data to build psychological profiles of their users and their interests, so that they can target them with relevant content and adverts using algorithms. The more time you spend online, the more your behaviour can be analysed, so the more effective the targeting, the more adverts you will see and the more money tech companies can make. Targeted advertising goes beyond pushing people towards buying certain products; it can also push people towards certain behaviours and political viewpoints – a political advert might encourage someone whose psychological data profile suggests they are undecided on who to vote for in an election to vote a certain way, or not to vote at all. 5

To filter through the mass of online content and to try to keep people engaged online longer, tech companies use algorithms that promote clickbait and shocking content (people are more likely to click on/engage with content that generates an emotional response, particularly outrage), and that make it easy for people to find content that aligns with their interests. 6 But these approaches can come at a social cost. Promoting content that triggers emotional responses can increase the likelihood of people seeing harmful content (long-term engagement on social media has been shown to be particularly harmful to the mental health of girls) 7 and make online spaces divisive and abusive, which impacts how people feel about, and engage with, those who have different views offline, fueling polarisation. 8 Pushing people towards content that aligns with their interests means that they are not being exposed to a diverse range of views and ideas: this can lead to people accessing completely different information to others, possibly getting trapped in echo chambers, and to the emergence of competing versions of reality (the widespread popularity of the flat earth conspiracy theory highlights this risk). These opposing narratives can also impact social cohesion. 9

As Bliuc and Chidley note, 

Mutually exclusive narratives create conditions for the formation of ideologically opposed camps. These narratives create ideal conditions for intergroup conflict and polarisation in the form of psychological and ideological distancing because they are based on mutually exclusive versions of social reality which are connected to norms and behaviours that aim to achieve competing group goals. 10

People’s engagement with social media platforms can, therefore, shape their understanding of the world, make them reject ideas that are different and/or that challenge their sense of reality, and make them more suspicious of those who hold different views. 11 These engagement practices can contribute to societal polarisation. 12 13

Social media algorithms can therefore shape user interests; shape and influence user behaviour through the use of notifications, recommendations and suggestions; 14 and can impact the content people post: content creators are encouraged to post shocking content as it is more likely to be engaged with and shared. 15

Tech giants have also made their platforms incredibly addictive in a bid to keep people online. Scrolling on social media platforms, and getting likes, views and notifications, releases dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel good. 16 The stimulation that apps offer can get people addicted to seeking a dopamine release, but, after that release, there is a ‘comedown’, which can drive us to seek more dopamine. Moreover, the more we binge on these platforms, the less we feel the effects of dopamine and the more we need to scroll and/or post to get the same ‘fix’. 17

For over a decade, social media companies have not been regulated in the same way as traditional sources of information. In the UK, if the print media, television and radio share something false or harmful, they are fined and/or have to apologise. The UK’s 2023 online safety bill makes social media companies more responsible for the content they show young people or risk being fined, 18 but there is still a lack of transparency on how their algorithms work: 19 many argue that algorithmic secrecy must end to prevent user manipulation. 20

Others argue that, given their capacity to boost content and shape behaviour, algorithms should be designed to counter polarisation and division. 21 One way could be for them to spread unifying narratives that help bring people from different groups together. 22

As Bliuc and Chidley note, 

Narratives achieving intergroup unification are based on consensus that goes beyond group boundaries, so they come to be shared across social categories  and  group  memberships.  Because  they  highlight  what  unifies  us  as  humans,  they  are  connected  to identification with superordinate, non-polarising social categories such as ‘humanity’ and speak to unifying emotions, such as compassion and care for those vulnerable. Because, in most cases, these narratives are based on  universal  principles  and  pro-social  beliefs  connected  to  the  survival  of  us  as  a  species,  they  speak  to  the  most basic human values around cooperation. As a result, these narratives incorporate aspects of social reality on which people across groups, social categories, and political fault-lines can all agree on [...]. 23

Both the call for transparency and for using social media to spread unifying narratives have their appeal. However, because the latter option could be said to pose ethical implications concerning the manipulation of people, total transparency and more algorithmic regulation may ultimately be preferable.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Depending on your students’ prior knowledge, you may need to provide them with the following definitions before or during the lesson. Consider adding the following terms to your Word Wall:

  • Algorithm (noun): A set of rules and calculations made by computers that decides what content users see on social media. It helps filter through large amounts of information and means no two people see the same content. 
  • Echo chamber (noun): An environment where someone only encounters information and opinions similar to their own. 
  • Dopamine (noun): A brain chemical that is released in anticipation of and during pleasurable activities. 
  • Polarisation (noun): A situation in which people or opinions are divided into two opposing groups.
  • Misinformation (noun): False or inaccurate information that is spread by people who do not realise it is false or misleading. 
    Please note, this term is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all types of false or inaccurate information, shared with intent or not.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan


Begin by explaining to students that they will be exploring how social media has impacted the information landscape. Before doing this, invite students to reflect on the following questions in their journals and make it clear they will not be required to share any personal reflections they note down:

  1. Note down the positive ways in which social media has impacted:
    • Your life
    • Your relationships
    • The information you can access
    • Society
  2. Note down the negative ways in which social media has impacted:
    • Your life
    • Your relationships
    • The information you can access
    • Society
  3. How has social media impacted the information people consume and how they share it?

Allow students to keep their a & b responses for questions one and two private, inviting them to share their c & d responses and their thoughts on question three.

Next, explain to students that they will explore how social media has changed the information landscape. Distribute the handout Social Media and the Information Landscape (Intermediate) or Social Media and the Information Landscape (Advanced). Read it as a class or ask students to read it in groups, if both level texts are being read in the classroom.

  • Algorithm (noun): A set of rules and calculations made by computers that decides what content users see on social media. It helps filter through large amounts of information and means no two people see the same content. 
  • Echo chamber (noun): An environment where someone only encounters information and opinions similar to their own. 
  • Dopamine (noun): A brain chemical that is released in anticipation of and during pleasurable activities. 
  • Polarisation (noun): A situation in which people or opinions are divided into opposing groups.

Then, ask students to discuss the following connection questions in pairs or small groups before leading a short class discussion: 

  1. What do you find surprising, interesting and/or troubling about what you have read? 
  2. What positive changes has social media brought to how people consume information? 
  3. How do social media companies make money? 
  4. How do social media companies boost user engagement? How does this impact the information people consume? 
  5. How are social media platforms addictive? 
  6. How, if at all, has content you have seen on social media influenced your opinions? How has it affected your emotions?
  7. What impact, if any, have you noticed that social media has on people’s relationships and the wider society?
  8. What do you think needs to be done to counter some of the negative impacts of social media? 

Then, show students the video PBS Learning Media’s video How Much Do Social Media Algorithms Control You? (8:48), inviting them to take notes.

After they have watched the video, ask students to discuss in pairs anything that stood out to them, or that connected with, extended and/or challenged what they had already learnt about social media algorithms. 

If there is time, lead a short class discussion inviting some students to share their thoughts.

In the 2020 docudrama The Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris, who worked at Google before leaving due to concerns about how the corporation used people’s data, states:

If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting, patiently. If something is not a tool, it is demanding things from you. And we’ve moved away from having a tools-based tech environment to an addiction manipulation-based tech environment. Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used; it has its own goals and its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you. 1

Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology

  1. What thoughts or reflections do you have after reading Harris’ statement? 

  2. Which social media apps do you use?

    • How much time do you spend on social media platforms? 

  3. How are you kept engaged on the platform? Think about notifications, app design, recommendations, interactions, etc.

  4. What are the goals of social media platforms? How are these different from your own goals? 

  5. How, if at all, has this lesson made you think about how you use social media?

  • 1Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, Exposure Labs, 2020. Netflix, netflix.com/title/81254224

Extension Activities

Watch The TikTok Effect and/or The Social Dilemma with students. As they are watching, pause the film, inviting them to discuss what they have seen and then take notes. You might also invite them to use the Connect, Extend, Challenge strategy. Then, invite students to write an article or speech or create a poster about what they have learnt. You might also ask students to work in groups and create presentations that they will then present to the class.

The Center for Humane Technology, which seeks to align technology with humanity’s best interests, has several resources in their Youth Toolkit that help students understand how social media works. Review these resources and plan some extension activities around them.

Show students the video How Does Social Media Affect the Way Teens Fit In or Express Their Individuality (10:22) to encourage them to reflect on how social media impacts their behaviour, including how they express themselves and what they do to fit in. You might also wish to use the viewing guide that accompanies the video.

Materials and Downloads

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