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Test-Driving Social Media

New social media tools can help kids practice what they learn in the classroom.

U.S. Department of Education/Foter
Source: U.S. Department of Education/Foter

Today's teens have a reputation for being accomplished, fluent, and effective social media users. But they learn these skills the way we learn most life lessons: through trial and error, by making mistakes and learning from the outcomes. While these trial-and-error experiences can be educational in many contexts, social media makes trials public and errors difficult to erase. This means that early mistakes can easily come back to haunt those who make them. So how can kids build their social media power user skills?

Social media literacy education is key to helping kids learn to use these new technologies fluently and safely—letting them have fun without doing anything they might regret later. Some schools have helped to accelerate the learning process by providing digital literacy education in the classroom. Parents, too, can help prepare their kids for life online by modeling responsible communication and media use habits. But while kids learn some skills in the classroom and others from their parents, they’re often given “grown-up” social media accounts before they’re ready. Most of them don’t get a chance to practice these skills before they’re allowed into the wider world of social media.

Adding to parent and educator concerns, kids are beginning to use social media at even younger ages. While most apps request that users be 13 or older, it’s very easy to evade these age restrictions. This makes careful, supervised introductions to social media even more important. Facebook is beginning to target the under-13 set with the release of Messenger Kids , a version of its popular Messenger app that lets kids chat with a parent-approved set of contacts. As with every technology targeted at children, Messenger Kids has immediately earned both praise and condemnation from parents, researchers, consumer advocates, and others with stakes in the increasingly-intertwined worlds of parenting and technology.

Many parents, including some quoted in a recent New York Times article , are resigned to the inevitability of kids’ technology use and appreciate that Messenger Kids allows them at least some control over that use. They’re also excited about the app’s many family-friendly uses, like chatting with grandparents or keeping in touch with mom when she’s away. Others are concerned that yet another app will steal more of their kids’ time from offline play and face-to-face interaction. Still, others worry that introducing kids to the Facebook brand at a young age is priming them to become unquestioning consumers of Facebook’s other products as they get older. Media awareness group Common Sense Media notes that Facebook missed an opportunity with Messenger Kids to help teach kids to navigate social media safely, with reminders to be kind and to think before they post.

At the Cornell Social Media Lab, we’re working to fill the gap between classroom education and actual social experience with a new tool called Social Media TestDrive. TestDrive acts as a social media simulator, allowing kids to practice managing their privacy, making appropriate posts, and communicating with others. However, instead of interacting with potentially unknown others on the open Internet, kids instead interact with “bots”, or pre-programmed, simulated “users” that act and respond in realistic ways. Each TestDrive user is also separated into their own instance of the site, so their actions can’t follow them into the “real world”. Like a novice driver in a driving simulator, TestDrive lets kids explore, make mistakes, and practice their new-found skills in a way that’s safe and empowering. TestDrive currently includes lessons on creating accounts, stopping cyberbullying, and information literacy, with more to come. It’s currently being tested with small groups of educators and kids in New York State.

Education is one way to deal with the extensively-documented tradeoffs between the risks and opportunities of the Internet and social media use for young people. Appropriate risk management strategies may differ from child to child, and for the same child at different developmental stages. Even Facebook itself acknowledges the delicate risk-opportunity balance, saying that it intends to work with families, academics, and other experts to create tools that are safe and beneficial for kids. The Social Media Lab is continuing to work toward understanding these trade-offs, leading to better recommendations for families and to more advanced educational tools.

This post was co-authored by Dr. Natalie Bazarova and Jessie Taft, Social Media Lab Manager.