Educators, parents and teens themselves know that teenage girls are drowning in social media. Our Orthodox Jewish day school engaged students in discussions about technology by offering two large group assemblies, with fascinating guest speakers and post-reflective small group discussions. The girls were aware that engaging with social media was not in line with the explicit mission of “commitment to high standards of Torah observance and personal conduct.” Girls’ use of social media, from watching promiscuous dances wearing immodest clothing to bullying others in a Snapchat group chat or watching gratuitous violence, is not in line with either of these values.
The second time the school told the girls they were going to go to an assembly to listen to an expert about technology, the girls complained that they were uninterested in hearing “another adult tell us why social media is the worst—we’ve heard you—we get it.” After this assembly (alongside ensuing small group discussions), the students revealed that they were surprisingly intrigued with the speaker’s position and found it “super interesting.” Two days later, I asked them whether they decided to put away their phones after they listened to the speaker, and they said no.
During this same time, when introducing the concept of “point of view,” I gave the students the short story “Likes” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. The story artfully reveals the heartbreaking third-person perspective of a father trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out how to talk to his daughter while he watches her checking her phone to see how many “likes” are showing up on her posts. The students told me it was the best story they read that year, speaking to them far more than works by Nobel Prize winners.
The story’s accessibility effectively taught how perspective shapes a narrative, but I wondered if they (like me) had been moved to think about the relationship between our focus on our phones and our relationships with our family. One week after reading this story, I casually asked the students at the beginning of the class, “Hey, did reading that story change how you use your phone?” The response was, “I did think about it.” The answer was no. This was just another example that did not apply to them. They were not going to change their behavior by reading a story, another “expert” disparaging technology.
Pedagogically, John Dewey first inspired the notion that children learn by experiencing learning rather than having it dictated to them. He inspired Allison King’s phrase “sage on the stage,” “the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam—often without even thinking about it.”
If the goal is for students to change the way they think or apply knowledge to their lives, learning cannot end with “new knowledge” and must ask students to synthesize and apply all expert knowledge to understand the material in a meaningful way. The contrast between students’ reactions to large group assemblies or reading short stories and the case described below reveals that teens do change their behavior regarding social media usage when they are asked to determine the benefits and drawbacks of social media interactions rather than being told that social media is disastrous.
Some might say that teenagers are too young to synthesize the deeply complex evidence surrounding the corporate, psychological and ethical effects of contemporary technology. This may be true: Teenagers’ frontal lobes are not developed before they graduate high school, and therefore they cannot truly understand the effects technology might have on their generation in a long-term way. However, teenagers are not too young to practice synthesizing complex primary source documents or try to understand where they think boundaries should be made around the laws that inform citizens’ “freedom of technology,” specifically the First Amendment, the Child Online Protection Act and Section 230 of the Communications Act. Only when students participated in evaluating how technology affected their lives did they come away with new understandings about social media that affected their future usage.
The Assignment: Policy and Technology
The students at our high school have been preoccupied with who uses technology, how they should use technology and whether/how adults instruct them on technology use. For this reason, I focused the nonfiction unit on the most recent Senate Judiciary Hearing on Social Media.
The 2022 Congress Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law focused on how to create “transparency” in the monetization of social media to determine how terrorists use social media to communicate with each other and attract new members. The 2023 Subcommittee focused on the effects of social media on teenage depression. Opposing and conflicting witness testimonies, as well as articles that helped define terms and laws, served as complex nonfiction articles for students to try to summarize and ask questions about. The ultimate goal was for the students to synthesize their findings in an argumentative essay.
Articles and testimonies elaborated on whether social media companies should be forced to limit their content, the relevance of revenue to the company’s willingness to limit content, how/whether terrorist activities are enabled in social media, and finally who is responsible for “policing” these limitations. After reading these essays, the students were baffled. “Why wasn’t the social media group who let the people organize the Tree of Life attack punished?” “Why aren’t they held accountable?” “What would it take for them to be held accountable?”
I responded to their questions with more articles ranging from Germany’s recent fine on Facebook due to its allowance of anti-Semitic content to articles on the United States Supreme Court ruling against Gonzales and the freedom of speech in the United States. Students were allowed to direct the course of questioning and take more ownership of their determination of whether or not restrictions are permissible, and who should impose them. The argumentative essay was graded on how they contextualized and analyzed specific evidence to make their argument.
To make sense of the information, students determined how to focus their analysis through their argument. Some argued that Germany’s decision to fine Facebook for terrorist activities should serve as a model for the United States. Others argued that social media’s intention for allowing terrorist activities was based on monetary gain: Incendiary posts draw more attention and ad revenue. The writing was difficult for the students, as they were tasked to rely on expert testimony to support their arguments, rather than insights from their own experiences.
The students left the unit congratulating themselves on finishing the synthesis essay and happy to read a novel. However, two weeks later, multiple students said that the exercise changed the way that they approach social media. One wrote, “I do sometimes watch those cringe videos. I didn’t realize that YouTube was social media before.” Two months later, at the end of the year, students gave me multiple thank you letters, writing that the unit “exposed me to the outside world by reading all of the primary source articles. This helped me make wise decisions regarding the technology I will have.”
The principal and director of social activities both told me that students remarked about how influential the unit was on their actual usage of technology. While the unit asked students to organize complex ideas and articles in writing, the unit became even more meaningful because students were forced to make sense of the contradictions inherent in protecting the freedom of speech and business that provide such speech, while simultaneously protecting the victims that fall prey to everything from terrorist plots organized in the dark web to the recently disclosed social media related mental health concerns for teenage girls.
Last week, a new school madricha (college student employee) who had studied this unit with me three years prior pulled me aside to say, “Dr. Cohen, I just want you to know what an impact our technology unit had on me. While I was in seminary in Israel, everyone was talking about social media, and I was so informed with actual evidence. I knew so much.”
Taking Responsibility for Their Social Media Use
When I started the unit three years ago, after the very first Senate Judiciary Hearing focused on social media, my goal was to engage the girls in a nonfiction unit that was relevant to their lives in order to improve their reading fluency. As an English teacher, it was not my job to teach technology safety skills or religious values, and because of this, I did not provide a morality lesson on social media. I tried not to tell the students that social media was “bad” or why it could be harmful, save for the recently revealed data about teenage mental health.
Instead, I gave them the tools to understand why the adults around them were (and still are) in such a panic. By thoroughly understanding that they cannot look to most social media platforms to police their own content and that the government was not yet ready to infringe on First Amendment rights, the teens in my class realized that they (and their parents) needed to protect themselves. After finishing the unit, my students were asked to take leadership roles in the next social media schoolwide lecture/break-out session and were ready to listen.
It was only after providing the girls with the primary sources, large group lectures and small group discussions that my students were willing to reconsider their mindset on social media and act as leaders to the school at large. Students need to understand not only what is at stake in participating in social media platforms but also their exposure to predators. Ultimately, my students recognized that in order to remain healthy, they needed to stay informed and adhere to internet boundaries for themselves by relying on information and safety mechanisms put in place by their school and parents.