Teaching Your Students How to Navigate the World of Social Media

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy. 

Social media. What do you think of when you hear those words? Certainly, you think of popular names in the space: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. These sites allow us to create and share content with the world. Maybe you think of YouTube, which allows us to make videos that anyone with internet access can see. How about Skype and WhatsApp? We can be sociable and talk to others, right? Pinterest may come to mind because we can share imagery and resources and have others interact with what we share. 

What these all have in common is that they are web-based technologies designed to allow users to create content and enable others to interact with it. The goal is to connect, whether with the entire world or some specific community. 

I’m also guessing that something else comes to mind when you hear social media. Most of us now immediately think of judgmental words: fun, wonderful, harmful, fake, damaging, and so on. Fun! We can tell everyone about how great our holiday was. Wonderful! We can see old friends' kids and connect with folks from our past. Harmful! We have heard that students (and adults) spend enormous time engaged with social media, and we worry that their time can be better spent. Fake! We have heard about people spreading false information to stir up trouble. Damaging! We have heard that intelligent discourse has died because it cannot occur in a world of 140 characters. No matter how you judge it, social media is part of all our lives, so it is important to discuss its value.

Let’s start with some simple warnings to share with students so that they are thoughtfully—and carefully—engaging on these platforms.

1. What you say becomes public.

Duh. That’s the point, right? We want friends, acquaintances, and strangers to see the amazing things we do and look at all of our cool selfies from fun locations. The more views and likes, the better!

But students should also know that they may be watched by colleges and future employers. In a Kaplan Test Prep survey of more than 350 college admissions officers, 35 percent reported looking at students’ profiles to learn more about them—this could be a positive or negative, depending on what a student posts. In addition, almost three-fourths of employers use social media to screen candidates, according to another survey. You are leaving clues online about who you are. What do those clues reveal? Be careful about what you post.

2. Your information is often tracked.

How do social media sites make money? By selling ads. How do advertisers know whom to market to? Because social media sites track your online behavior to create a profile of you. “Hey, this is a female teenager who plays volleyball. Wanna put an ad on her page for Lululemon?”

I get recommendations of whom I should follow on Twitter. Guess what? They recommend educators and educational businesses. Remember Cambridge Analytica? In 2016, that company got access to 50 million Facebook users and used their profile information to target them with political messages. Be aware. 

3. Be aware of false information.

The number of untruths being sent around online is staggering, and students need to know how to assess different sources of information. People forward some nice platitudes allegedly said by the Dalai Lama or Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein, but actually those people never said the words attributed to them. See my post about that here.

So what? It’s a nice thought so just retweet it! NO. Do not suspend critical thinking. That is the opening for more serious fakes. Election seasons especially are full of “news” from unreliable sources that gets shared unthinkingly. Encourage your students to stay vigilant using these news media literacy tips

4. Read before you share.

People have figured out that the sensational gets noticed. The outrageous, the nasty, and the polarizing posts attract attention. We know we can get you to read things with clever clickbait headlines. “Border invasion because of libtards!” versus “4,000 refugees fleeing Honduras”—which gets more play? Unfortunately, just as many people share fake quotes, many also share exciting headlines without ever reading the story or analyzing the content. Don’t be duped.

5. Understand how social media can impact mental health.

First, all lives look better than yours, right? Look at all the great things others are doing! Sigh. Now you’re depressed. Because people only post the high points, the pictures make their lives seem better than yours. And indeed, there are studies that suggest a correlation between high social media use and depression—in an era where mental health issues among children and teenagers are becoming more prevalent.

FOMO, fear of missing out, affects many social media users and makes them constantly worried—must check every minute to make sure I am up to speed! Finally, social media can give you an addictive rush of dopamine. The same wonderful feeling we get from a hug can be obtained from a large number of “likes” on our posts. Must have more! Must constantly check to see if anyone is "liking" me! Don’t let social media control your mood or your mind.

6. You are missing deep thinking.

Have you seen "tl/dr?" It shows up from time to time if someone tries to make a long post. “Too long, didn’t read” is a social media phenomenon. Twitter, of course, limits you to very short comments, but other sites are also about quick shots. There is no development of ideas, no thoughtful discourse, no deep understanding. The truth is that every issue facing us is very complex, yet social media forces us to overly simplify to the point of seriously harming our ability to look for and analyze arguments. Don’t pretend that 140 characters contain all the truth.

I haven’t answered the question of whether social media is overall good or bad for us. That will be up for debate for a long while. In the meantime, let’s give students some awareness of these issues so they can be critical consumers instead of passive receivers of social media messages.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the new K–12 HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs.