Countering Social Media’s Toxic Effect

Topics: Literacy

Last winter, I stayed up past my usual bedtime to watch a late-season Monday night showdown between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. The AFC’s No. 1 seed was on the line!

That’s the game in which Bills safety Damar Hamlin made a routine tackle and collapsed, suffering from cardiac arrest nine minutes into the game. I sat, stunned, wondering what I had just witnessed. I turned to my Twitter feed to see what others were saying about the event. It was a bad move.

What began as a conversation about the fast actions of the medical staff devolved into a debate about COVID-19 vaccines and myocarditis. I closed Twitter, turned off the television, and tried to center myself before heading back to school, still struggling to process the tragic event. The next day, I was still thinking about what I had witnessed the previous evening.

Tackling Misinformation

As a principal, I was aware how many people air their toxic opinions on Twitter (now known as X) and other social media apps, but what troubled me was the idea that our students are exposed to such vitriol. I recalled a peer mediation I performed with three seventh graders who had repeated insults from a popular Instagram influencer’s posts. The “Twitter effect,” as I call it, is a problem that impacts students at younger and younger ages every year.

Principals must tackle misinformation and opinions posing as fact by providing students with a solid foundation in media literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) defines media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators, and active citizens.”

Despite tight budgets and tighter schedules, it’s easy to start a media literacy program. Here are a couple of simple tips for including it in your school’s curriculum:

Embed source analysis. Consider the classes in which students are tasked to research information online and write about it. These represent a natural point in the curriculum for staff to work with students to access information, analyze it, and evaluate it for quality.

We offer several excellent databases for student use, but they must be able to pull information from news sites and other online sources. They must be able to ask critical questions about everything they read: Who wrote it? What’s missing? What is its purpose? How might others interpret this? Who might benefit? Who might be harmed? The more often students ask these questions, the more immune to misinformation they will be.

Launch a digital literacy curriculum. Many schools with technology classes offer instruction on digital literacy. Students learn to avoid disseminating personal information and pictures on the internet; avoid meeting strangers; avoid scams, viruses, and clickbait; and most importantly, judge the validity of information and its sources.

The curricular framework of digital literacy overlaps with media literacy, providing additional opportunities for students to gain critical knowledge that allows them to be safe consumers of online content while reducing their digital footprint.

As more young students get cellular phones, principals can help parents understand how to help children develop
media literacy skills. Consider bringing in a professional speaker to address parents, or check NAMLE’s “Building Healthy Relationships With Media” (bit.ly/3Or40Ju).

With personal technologies coming into the classroom, it is critical for schools to communicate frequently with parents about the available resources. You can help make digital literacy a topic at home and at school before it becomes an issue.

Each year, engage your school in National Media Literacy Week, which focuses each day of the week on one of the five components of media literacy. NAMLE has also created a lesson titled “Meet the Media Monsters”—a tool to introduce lower middle school students to the pitfalls of social media and help them develop an awareness of poor online behaviors.

Media literacy is vital to the long-term well-being of students, and we must help them become responsible consumers of media and information. As we educate students for the modern world, it is important to foster independent thinkers who won’t fall into every social media trap they encounter. Implementing core aspects of media literacy into your existing curriculum is a low-cost and low-stakes effort that produces powerful results.

Garrett Dukette is principal of Dr. Helen Baldwin Middle School in Canterbury, Connecticut.