With children being exposed to the vast and thrilling world of social media earlier and earlier, a team within the Social Media Lab in the Department of Communication is currently developing Social Media TestDrive, an educational platform to help adolescents navigate this risky but rewarding realm.
“Social Media TestDrive is an educational tool aiming to teach middle school students social media skills and digital citizenship skills before they actually go on a social media site,” said Yoon Hyung Choi Ph.D. ’17, a postdoc in the communication department and the content director and project manager for TestDrive.
Choi said that children often fake their ages to gain unauthorized full access to social media platforms. “They are already exposed to things that could potentially be harmful to them, and we’re trying to give them a way to combat it,” Choi said.
“We’re targeting nine to 12 year-olds and teaching them the skills they need to know before they go onto a real social media site… through a social media simulation.” Choi continued.
Choi explained that they have built a fake social media platform that mirrors Instagram, except that none of the people or content on it is real.
“It’s all created by the researchers, so we can control what the students see and expose them to different scenarios that they might encounter,” Choi said. This includes cyberbullying, potential breaches of privacy, or fake news, albeit in less extreme forms than one might encounter on a real social media platform.
The program consists of several modules, each of which covers a specific issue in social media. Some of them, such as “How to Be an Upstander,” which deals with cyberbullying, aim to teach students certain actions that they could take to play positive roles online. Other modules, such as “Is It Private Information?” teach students how to protect their personal information.
After completing the activity, students are asked questions and encouraged to reflect on their experiences. They also get to practice the concepts they learned on the fake site, according to Choi.
Common Sense Education, which partnered with the Social Media Lab on TestDrive, contributed their own “online activity” curriculum to serve as guidance in the field. Each of the modules in TestDrive is paired with a Common Sense Education lesson.
“We have the social media research expertise, but not so much the hands-on experience with actual children’s education, so [Common Sense’s curriculum] has been a great contribution so far,” Choi said.
TestDrive was developed in 2017 from an idea shared by members of the Social Media Lab at the PRYDE Youth Development Research Update conference.
At this conference, Prof. Natalie Bazarova, program director of Social Media TestDrive, and Jessie Taft M.P.S. ’18, a former lab manager of the lab and now a research initiative coordinator at Cornell Tech, realized that children would greatly benefit from a “social media simulator” that would allow them to experience social media before using it for real.
A year before the TestDrive’s official launch in August 2019, the Social Media Lab collaborated with Cornell Cooperative Extension to test the program with approximately 200 students and 15 educators in New York State.
“[The lab] worked with a lot of teenagers in piloting and testing this program,” Choi said, “and after we piloted it, we always got feedback in terms of short surveys or short interviews that we would do with the middle school students.”
The simulated social media feed features posts that were created by undergraduate students at Cornell who were asked to apply their own social media experiences to create a believable environment for users.
As the feedback shows, however, the reality is substantially different. Choi explained that the many simulator participants were able to figure out that the fake news feed wasn’t real.
“There’s a limit in the things we can do, especially if we’re trying to get to a very broad audience. We have to make sure that it’s not super-offensive or super-harmful,” she said.
Despite the potential harms of social media on young adolescents, however, the lab maintains that some social media use should be encouraged.
“It’s a great way for youth to connect with friends. Or for creative expression, if they want to post things about themselves, it’s a good way to explore their own identity in that developmental stage,” Choi said.