Student Well-Being

How Teaching Kids ‘Digital Agency’ Can Make Social Media a Positive Place for Them

By Arianna Prothero — March 22, 2024 4 min read
Vector illustration concept of 3 students and a cell phone being unplugged from the internet.
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Part of what can make social media feel so miserable is a sense of losing control: not knowing how hours of time have evaporated while watching videos; obsessing over why someone has read a message but not responded, getting stuck in an endless comparison loop with peers whose lives always seem better.

At the same time, social media is a place where people—especially middle and high schoolers—build hobbies, advocate for causes they care about, and connect with friends and family.

The skill that’s needed to wrest back control is “digital agency”—or having meaningful choices over how technology fits into our lives—according to experts who presented recently at SXSWEDU in Austin in early March. They argue that this is an important part of digital literacy and helping kids learn how to use social media in a way that will boost their well-being instead of eroding it.

“It’s helpful to think about [social media and tech] as an amplifier,” said Carrie James, the managing director for the Center for Digital Thriving at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Social media can amplify real struggles that a young person is having, it can also amplify positive sources of support and indeed be a lifeline for some young people. The reality is for many young kids, it’s a mix of both.”

Schools have a big role to play in supporting students’ digital agency, she said.

But how does one exercise digital agency—let alone teach it?

At its core, digital agency is when teens know what their values are and can align their technology use with those values, said James. But doing that requires that adolescents have a firm grasp of what their values are; that they have strategies to avoid traps both in how social media is designed and in how people think; and that they cultivate mindful tech habits.

Teaching students to exercise digital agency means helping them identify what they value, said James.

“How does technology help you live those values that are most important to you right now, and how does it make it harder?” she said while presenting at SXSWEDU.

Teachers can do this with a values sorting exercise where students select what values they think are important—such as connection, physical health, or independence—and sort them into three categories: important, very important, and most important. Teachers should then encourage students to examine how technology helps support those values or gets in the way of students exercising them.

Helping students navigate around ‘thinking traps’

Another important component of digital agency is being able to identify “thinking traps"—also called cognitive distortions. These are irrational negative thought patterns that can cause people to believe things that are not necessarily healthy or true, said James.

For example, a student can see that a message they sent has been read but not responded to. Their initial reaction may be to think their friend is mad at them. This is an example of a thinking trap called “mind reading”—or assuming you know what the other person is thinking, said Eisha Bush, the director of education programs at Common Sense Media. Most likely, the other person simply forgot to respond, but students need to be taught that way of thinking.

“I think my friend is mad at me because they did not respond to my text. What are some other reasons? Their battery died. They’re at soccer practice. They could be absurd or likely ideas, but just the act of doing that helps get us out of our spiral,” Buch said during the SXSWEDU session. “It’s very much the case that our experiences with tech can get stuck and pulled into these traps, and we want to help young people identify them and get out of them.”

Coming up with alternative explanations is one of three strategies Buch and James recommend for combating thinking traps. The other two are asking students to prove themselves wrong (is there any evidence that your thought is true? Is there more evidence to that your initial reaction might be wrong?) and asking students what advice they would give a friend who was in a similar situation (with the idea of then giving that same—often kinder and more optimistic—advice to themselves).

Recognizing these thinking traps as they’re happening can help students course correct relatively quickly and go a long way toward reducing negative emotions and preventing problematic behaviors, said Buch.

Another important component to avoiding thinking traps is being aware of the design traps that are embedded in social media platforms to keep users hooked and engaged in the platform, said Buch. For example, a new video automatically playing after one ends or the infinite scroll feature on a social media feed.

Finally, achieving digital agency requires developing positive tech habits—the automatic technology-related routines students engage in without thinking. Tech habits can be good, like checking in with family members, but they can also be unhelpful, like scrolling through social media at bedtime. Teachers can encourage students to identify their good and bad tech habits and focus on engaging in the positive ones and trying to break the negative ones.

Common Sense Media and the Center for Digital Thriving have developed a free curriculum—with presentation slides, activities, and handouts— for middle school and high school on how to teach digital agency and technology well-being.

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