Ed Tech, Social Media

The Upside of Social Media

The Upside of Social Media

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, Digital Citizenship Special Issue, 2020

By Alex Newman

Released in 2018, TikTok has become one of the fastest growing social media platforms. The wild popularity of the app can be accredited to users’ ability—often youth—to express themselves through music, singing, dancing, and comedy routines. The app, however, has also raised concerns—mostly among parents, but also with educators—for the way it’s being used. One example is the “pass out” challenge whereby kids cut off oxygen to their brains and then record the results.

Focusing on those types of negative incidents—as dangerous as they are—is missing the point, explains motivational speaker Joe Whitbread. “Kids today are digital citizens from birth,” he says. “They already know about cyber bullying, rights, and wrongs. This shouldn’t be a conversation about TikTok per se, but about the mental health of the child and whether he or she is exploring places in a negative state. If a child is healthy, chances are high that their online explorations will also be healthy.”

Usually, kids use social media to connect with friends and have fun. In the course of their school visits, Whitbread and his business partner Jo Phillips have addressed over 27,000 kids. They say fun is the number one reason they use social media. TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and many other platforms allow kids to explore their creativity, for entertainment and information purposes, he explains.

It’s also instructional and kids learn things like how to apply make-up or fix rollerblade wheels. Also, they can build up their personal brand, although that has to be handled with care, Whitbread says. “If your reputation in high school is drinking likely it will precede you in your job future.”

Whitbread and Phillips co-founded their company Jo(e) Social Media and became “evangelists” about the positive ways in which kids are using social media. It’s actually the parents who need training in responsible use of social media, they say. “Adults weren’t raised on social media and conduct themselves differently—they use it to journal their activities, to brag about their kids, and even to bully others.”

Why Should Teachers Incorporate Literacy into the Curriculum?

The short answer is teachers must because parents aren’t. The reason, Whitbread says, is because “they’re [often] at a loss as to what the digital stuff is about. Adults didn’t grow up with social media, and they are not as familiar with it. They [may follow] blogs and reports that are mostly negative, and they’re not hearing about the amazing things kids are doing on social media and how they’re using it to connect, even globally.”

There’s a philosophical distinction here as Carol Arcus, vice-president of the Association for Media Literacy, explains: “We’re not in the business of prevention, but the business of preparation.”

For Chelsea Atwell, a Toronto elementary school teacher and one of AML’s directors, technology has always been an asset. Diagnosed with dyslexia in Grade 4, she lucked out with a wonderful special education teacher who encouraged her to use a computer instead of copying math problems from the board.

When Atwell became a teacher herself, she noticed how students were all at radically different levels and believed that technology—especially the assistive kind—would be beneficial. She took a media literacy course that was partially subsidized through the Toronto District School Board, then introduced media production in her K-4 classes. The students were excited “because they could produce and tell their own stories,” she says. “It was a great entry point for curriculum and a great teaching hook—once you [the teacher] understand the pedagogy behind it, you can engage students in a much richer activity.”

This is where the literacy piece comes in—kids are technology-savvy, but they need to be guided in asking the right questions. Teacher-librarian Diana Maliszewski says those questions contribute to critical thinking and kids and adults both need educating and re-educating. It shouldn’t be restricted to looking out for online predators or being cautious with social media—but to all media, including advertising and news stories.

As Maliszewski explains in an article she co-wrote with Atwell: “By starting at a young age to wonder, question, discuss and understand all the media texts we are continually exposed to, this will help our littlest learners to become critical thinkers as well as literate media consumers and producers.”

Thanks to AML’s push for media literacy in the schools since the 1970s, the subject has been part of Ontario’s K-8 language curriculum since 2006. Originally, Arcus says, they were “hoping the discrete strand of learning would protect the presence of media literacy, but things have changed so much with digital technology, that most can agree that digital media literacy is necessary in every aspect of learning.”

At the moment, however, digital awareness and media literacy are still only part of English studies but that needs to change, Arcus says. “History has its bias and is a subject where the teachers really need media literacy. PhysEd is a natural given so many body image issues, but most PE teachers aren’t trained in it.”

Some teachers, though, have taken it upon themselves to become digitally aware. Whitbread mentions an Alberta social studies teacher who added TikTok to the curriculum when he saw the number of kids using it. Whitbread has also seen “principals Snapchat morning announcements, teachers producing classes on YouTube, or Tweeting them. It allows parents to see what their children are doing. And it’s ultimately about normalizing the social media.”


In Whitbread’s experience, the problem lies more often with parents. This came to a head late last year with a highly publicized event in an Alberta high school. A teacher who had taught a lesson on climate change— using videos from both Greenpeace and the Alberta government—was openly pilloried on Facebook by one of the parents. The post went viral and the comments became so increasingly violent that the principal opted to cancel the Christmas dance for fear of reprisal. The superintendent for that school, Jayson Lovell, has since worked with Jo(e) Social Media on a program for parents requiring them to sign a digital contract, similar to the Respect in Sport contracts.

What Should Be Taught and How to Incorporate It?

The AML defines media “[as] made by people, for people. You can see it. You can hear it. You can feel it. You can wear it. You can experience it. All media has a message.”

Being media literate, though, is much broader than “info verification and information literacy,” Arcus says. “When children are taught well and effectively, they’re able to recognize a newspaper article as a construct. Everything is a construct, including their textbooks.”

Maliszewski, who learned media literacy through professional development courses and additional research, says social media is a great teaching tool, but teachers need to apply critical thinking to its inherent messaging. “You need to look at why you choose a particular media, why it’s set up the way it is, who is included, who’s excluded…. Even our [school] assemblies… are media [constructs] too. The point is, media is part of the regular school day so it shouldn’t be separated from everything else.”

In addition to consuming content, students can also produce it—and do so critically. Maliszewski explains that her students use Lego and stop-motion animation apps to create their own version of a popular kids YouTube show called “Mystery Box.” This way they aren’t simply passive consumers and learn what is involved in creating a message. They also have conversations about the toys and games students enjoy such as on Webkinz.

Maliszewski also draws from everyday life—current events, culture, and society. She once asked students to draw an authority figure and was surprised at how much the young students were inspired by watching the news. A lively discussion ensued. Given her students come from diverse backgrounds, she also draws from individual cultural experiences: “Media isn’t just an add-on, it’s being able to understand the culture and society we live in.”

Parents in her elementary school have been supportive. For last year’s project on hair in a media context, one of the parents, a Muslim mom, brought in different hijabs for the kids to try on while she talked about their meaning. “A lot of other learning came out that I hadn’t expected,” Maliszewski says.

Even a poster about climate change, she says, is a media construct. “Advertisers use strategies to get our attention… how can we, as teachers, use those same strategies to get kids to pay attention—and then alert students to the fact that their attention has been gotten through these strategies.”

If that sounds like being overly suspicious of everything, it’s not, Maliszewski says. “It’s about being aware and widening our idea about what a media text is saying.” The kids never cease to amaze her with their complex and philosophical thinking.

An argument can be made that including media literacy actually reduces teacher workload because of the partnering possibilities when you integrate curriculum such as math, social studies, history. The idea isn’t new, but using media production—video, oral communication, script writing, and the collaborating—to do so, is.

The real problem is the time it takes to research how to incorporate digital awareness into the classroom. It does require additional teacher training, but faculties aren’t teaching it enough, even though media literacy education is expected in most places in the world.

More important than learning the technology is to better understand the underlying pedagogy, Atwell says. “You can do coding, but how you link that to your curriculum in a deeper way, is more important.”

AML’s website is only six months old, but it corrals 20 years of curriculum design and pedagogy. Its goal is to “help teachers understand how to apply current events, what kinds of questions to encourage their students to ask,” Arcus says. “Discernment grows and is nurtured through substantial practice that has a solid foundation in critical thinking.”

Alex Newman is a Toronto freelance writer and editor. Visit her website, alexnewmanwriter.com.