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Putting the Freak-out Over Social Media and Kids’ Mental Health in Historical Context

Educating kids in the era of social media feels like uncharted territory—but is it?

The specific challenges of social media are unique: A problematic video can ricochet around the school (or halfway around the world) nearly instantaneously. But technological advances bringing new social problems is a tale as old as time, according to Ioana Literat, a professor of communication media and learning technologies design at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Literat is also the associate director of the Media and Social Change Lab at Columbia where, she said, she spends a lot of time thinking about the social and educational implications of media for young people.

Education Week asked Literat about those implications and what educators may be getting wrong in their assumptions. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What nuance do you think the current debate about social media and youth mental health is missing?

I think an important part of nuancing this discussion, the current debate, is also by historicizing it. We like to think that everything with social media is unprecedented. Even in the name of the technology itself—new media, right?

There’s this myth that it’s new, but actually, we see these [kinds] of moral panics around social media illustrated in previous communication technologies as well.

One of the classes that I teach at Teachers College is history of communication. And that’s exactly how I start: I pick out these quotes that are about moral panics about social media,—or [my students] think they’re about social media—but then I reveal them to be about the telegraph, and the telephone, and the postal service and newspapers. So, it’s not really that new.

Whenever there is a communication technology that has such a huge social impact, there is a tendency to panic, and there is a tendency to go between utopia and dystopia with no middle ground. Often when we do see these moral panics, the object of the panic is young people and women.

Yes, societally we are freaking out, but we’ve freaked out before with every major technology cycle and almost every time it’s about young people and women—especially young girls.

Is there’s some legitimacy to this moral panic? I’m thinking about multiple investigations into how men use social media to contact young girls.

I don’t mean say, ‘Oh, everything’s exactly the same,’ just that this historical perspective definitely matters. And because the reach and the scale is so grand with social media, we need to pay particular attention to the harmful effects, whether these effects are deliberate or not, whether they are direct or less direct.

On the one hand, [there are] the safety issues that you mentioned. There are challenges with misinformation, cyberbullying, the negative impact on young people’s self-esteem, which we see a lot more with young girls and female-identifying youth than we see with male-identifying youth.

But I will also say that in general, my research perspective is one of … belief in young people’s agency. I think often the question is: What is technology doing to young people? And I like to ask: What are young people doing with technology?

A lot of my own work is in this area: how participating in causes online, or even just following, can really broaden young people’s understanding of social political issues, foster empathy, and hone their civic voice. Because it’s not like you just know how to be a citizen or a participant in public life. You actively need to work on that skill, and to work on that skill, you need a safe space. And often for young people, for better or for worse, social media is that space.

What are some skills schools should be teaching to promote a healthy use of social media?

When it comes to media literacy, for instance, still so much of it is centered around consumption: How to be good consumers of social media or online content.

There’s definitely a need for more of a focus on production. Everybody’s a content creator these days, and for young people that’s so important.

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