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When Social Media Is Hurting Students: 5 Steps to Improve Digital Well-Being (Opinion)

Forty-one states came together in October toward a shared goal—suing Meta, the social media company that owns and operates Facebook and Instagram. The complaint, filed in federal court, outlines how the company appears to be cultivating compulsive use of its apps to boost profit at the expense of youth well-being.

The lawsuit gives credence to what many adults have long feared: Design features like autoplay and infinite scroll make for frictionless experiences that are hard to pull away from, especially for youth who have developmental vulnerabilities in self-regulation. Policy change is crucial.

While legislation for regulating social media to prioritize youth well-being will take some time to come into effect across the United States, teachers can start addressing student needs in their own classrooms right away. We believe digital well-being is an essential topic and a natural fit within existing social and emotional learning efforts.

Our teams at the Center for Digital Thriving at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Common Sense Education are doubling-down on creating first-of-their-kind lessons for middle and high school students that link evidence-based digital well-being practices to tech-relevant challenges. While today’s technologies can undercut adolescents’ digital agency through efforts to tether them to their devices, teens are not helpless against the draw of technology.

Here are five actionable and evidence-based ways educators can start building students’ digital agency and supporting their digital well-being.

  1. Explore design tricks companies use to exploit attention. As the federal complaint outlines in extensive detail, the tech we use every day is strategically designed to capture and hold our attention. Over time, companies have gotten “better” at knowing what pulls us in and keeps our eyes on the screen. To help, teachers can unpack design tricks and discuss how they can impact well-being. Students can watch “Mind Control: How Apps Use Design Tricks To Hook You,” a video that explains why companies employ features like autoplay and notifications to get users to stay on their apps. Learning about these features can motivate students to take back control of their experience with technology and pave the way for more agency.
  2. Talk about how tech can amplify feelings of anxiety and depression. The striking decline in youth mental health coincides with a steep increase in social media use. Research shows that technology can amplify challenges that impact teenagers’ well-being. Whether it’s social comparison, the struggle to untether from devices, or an influx of harmful content, many teens experience ways that tech amplifies feelings of anxiety and stress. This by no means indicates that all tech is bad or that tech is wholly responsible for causing the mental health crisis, but young people are struggling, and we can help them with the issues exacerbated by social media.

    We can help our students by normalizing and validating their feelings and experiences and inviting them to reflect on their tech habits individually or through peer interviews. Allowing students to consider the benefits of technology and then to think about habits that aren’t serving their well-being can set the stage for them to design personal tech-habit challenges to experiment with making changes to their day-to-day use.

  3. Build their awareness of thinking traps. Teenagers (and even adults) tell us that social media can spark the all-too-common feeling, “All my friends have better lives than me.” Plus, design features like “read receipts” can lead to teens knowing their messages have been seen and stressing about why friends haven’t yet replied (“They must be mad at me!” “I said the wrong thing, I’m such an idiot!”). These are classic examples of thinking traps, aka cognitive distortions: unhelpful, automatic thought patterns that can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s human nature to fall into these traps from time to time, but it’s also true that social media and other forms of tech can amplify these thinking traps.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy has a well-researched collection of evidence-based practices for learning how to identify and challenge thinking traps. Drawing on this evidence base, we’ve created classroom resources about what thinking traps are and how students can identify them. Have your students watch the video “How Your Brain Tricks You Into Negative Thinking” to help them understand how tech amplifies thinking traps, including all-or-nothing thinking (things are either all good or all bad), labeling (putting a negative label on yourself), and mind reading (assuming you know what the other person is thinking or why they acted a certain way). You can have your students practice identifying thinking traps and example thoughts, which in and of itself can help them with downward thinking spirals.

  4. Uncover the ways artificial intelligence can play a role in misinformation. AI is rapidly transforming the world, and students have a lot to consider when it comes to this ever-evolving technology. Recommendation algorithms, which determine what we do and do not see on our feeds and in our search results, aren’t usually built with our well-being in mind and can have very real consequences: They contribute to filter bubbles—information and opinions that reinforce a user’s beliefs—that can pull us toward increasingly extremist views and can proliferate misinformation. By understanding how these technologies work and who they are built to serve, students can start to cultivate more digital agency and leverage its tremendous positives and opportunities.
  5. Empower families to have meaningful conversations with their child. Families are desperate to connect with their children around healthy technology use but need support in making sure those conversations aren’t adversarial, judgmental, or causing further disconnection. Take the time to share with families the topics and resources you’re teaching in class. It turns out adults and kids alike are all in the pursuit of digital well-being, and learning about things like design tricks, thinking traps, and algorithms is relevant to everyone. Knowing we’re all in the same boat is a seemingly obvious but crucial insight that can help adults model vulnerability, helping deepen points of connection by finding common ground.

Students need more digital agency starting now, so we can’t wait for proposed legislative changes that may take months or years to begin giving them the support they need. The lawsuit against Meta has already given us hundreds of pages of reasons to worry about how tech can undercut children’s well-being and agency. Let’s take it as motivation to get serious about helping students build digital agency and well-being right away.

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