Last month, the American Psychological Association (1) and the U.S. Surgeon General (2) released reports on the harmful effects of social media on children, recommending a push for digital literacy curriculum in schools. I believe this is only the beginning of a startling realization that our government, and our world, has collectively been ignoring for several years now: that social media is negatively affecting children, and we need to do something about it.
We need to establish guidelines for how to navigate technology, especially social media. Curriculum is already provided for navigating things like drugs, alcohol, and sex, but to navigate the digital world, there is nearly no education provided. This points to a continued stigma against mental health, that it is somehow less important than a child’s physical health.
Social media and technology are arguably the most dangerous to a child’s mental health, but their physical health is also at risk through online predators and sextortion. Those who have influence in both the scientific and governmental circles are speaking up, which is raising awareness for programs like Filter First.
One of the most crucial points of our program, and any program centered around digital safety and wellness, is social media literacy. Having a solid grasp of social media literacy is what equips people to use social media in a positive way. The issue is that it’s difficult to find a solid definition of social media literacy, let alone use it to help navigate the world of social media.
But before we unpack social media literacy and how it empowers youth to take back control of their thoughts and emotions when using social media, let me introduce myself. I’m new to the Filter First team!
My name is Audrey Akins, and far from being a mother helping her children navigate the digital world, I myself am a digital native at the ripe age of 21. I will graduate this December with my bachelor’s degree in Emerging Media from Belmont University, one of the first students to graduate with this new degree. Coupled with a minor in psychology, I am passionate about teaching people how to navigate the digital world in a healthy way, as I believe it will one day be as commonplace as the food pyramid you see on the wall in the doctor’s office. Social media literacy is the food pyramid of technology – we need to learn how and what to put into our brains in order to be our healthiest selves.
Social media literacy actually stems from another concept that has been around for quite some time: Media literacy. Media literacy is actually defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to critically analyze stories presented in the mass media and to determine their accuracy or credibility,” (3) being one of the most important tools we have against “fake news.”
Media literacy enables people to identify the medium by which they are receiving a message, and then use their knowledge of that medium, coupled with the way the message is presented, to interpret the validity of the message.
Basically, it’s the ability to interpret media messages accurately.
I believe we are quite behind on incorporating a knowledge of media literacy into the education system today, specifically in early education. As a college student completing a degree in Emerging Media, I have had a more robust education of media literacy, through courses I have taken such as Media Ethics, a Survey of Digital Technology, and Writing for Media. I have had the privilege of learning in a classroom setting how the media operates, and how to use my brain to not just believe whatever message I receive blindly. Through my education, I now have a nearly automatic process that my brain undergoes to interpret messages from the media.
But social media is a completely different beast. Media literacy cannot exactly be applied to the medium of social media, because of its social nature. It stands out from all other forms of media in the user's ability to interact with the message, and oftentimes, their ability to control and manipulate the message itself. Whether this message is through an edited photo portraying a selective truth, a comment made on another post, or a caption that manipulates how one interprets the photo it’s associated with, scientists and media experts alike have collectively agreed a new term is necessary: social media literacy.
Because this term is relatively new, there is not a clear Oxford definition like its more general counterpart. Instead, a myriad of definitions exists online, in everything from blog posts to academic journals. In my research, I have found a few definitions that break the term down nicely.
Niall McNulty, a qualified thought leader in digital learning, defines social media literacy as “the ability to critically analyze content posted on social media platforms from a technical, cognitive, and emotional angle” (4).
The technical angle is knowing how each social media platform works. For example, knowing who can post what content, how one interacts with the content, and the underlying algorithms that present certain users’ content to you. Cognitively, being able to identify reliable sources to understand the validity of certain users. And emotionally, being aware of how social media can manipulate emotion and then learning to react and interact online with self control that stems from this emotional awareness.
A scientific article posted last year defines social media literacy similarly, that it is the interaction of content and competency that contributes to a robust understanding (5). In this definition, content is made up of three parts: the self, the media, and reality. In other words, how the interaction between knowledge of the self, the technological aspects of the platform, and level of realism in the digital world affects one’s perception and awareness of social media.
Competency is also made up of three parts: analysis, evaluation, and contribution. These scientists argue that in order to make the best contribution online, one must use content to inform their competency, or ability to interpret the message they are receiving to make an accurate evaluation that then allows for a positive contribution.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds with all these definitions, and maybe by now you understand why social media literacy is not a concept widely understood. But it is essential for digital wellness.
McNulty argues that having social media literacy is what enables a person to be a conscious consumer of technology, understanding the purpose and intent behind messages posted online, and how those messages can impact them.
Creating a culture of social media literacy is to create a culture of responsible digital consumers who understand all of social media’s benefits and downsides, and then use that knowledge to achieve the most good online.
Providing children with social media literacy training is the stepping stone to creating a world that Filter First envisions: one that empowers and equips youth to positively use social media in a way that cultivates digital wellness and helps them achieve their goals in life.
(1) “Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence.” American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/topics/social-media-internet/health-advisory-adolescent-social-media-use.
(2) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH). “Surgeon General Issues New Advisory about Effects Social Media Use Has on Youth Mental Health.” HHS.Gov, 23 May 2023, www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/23/surgeon-general-issues-new-advisory-about-effects-social-media-use-has-youth-mental-health
(3) Oxford American Dictionary, n.d.
(4) McNulty, Naill. “Why Is Internet and Social Media Literacy so Important?” Niall McNulty, 24 May 2023, www.niallmcnulty.com/2021/03/internet-literacy-social-media-literacy/
(5) Cho, H., Cannon, J., Lopez, R., & Li, W. (2022). Social media literacy: A conceptual framework. New Media & Society, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/14614448211068530