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.