Under the influence: helping children understand the business of social media

Feb 22, 2024 10:03:57 AM

Ruby Wootton, Associate Director at Revealing Reality, looks at the importance of helping children understand the business of social media.

Supporting children and young people to navigate the online world safely has become a top priority for teachers, and rightly so.

We can all read about — and sadly see for ourselves — the dangers and downsides of algorithm-served feeds on platforms like Tiktok and Instagram, the risks of teens sharing nudes, the harm and suffering caused by cyberbullying. So it’s essential that children and young people are taught about online safety, porn, scams and other things they might come across.

Seeing social media for what it is

But at Revealing Reality — and in partnership with the PSHE Association — we believe it’s also vital to equip children and young people with the foundational skills to see social media for what it is: a huge global industry that makes enormous amounts of money by influencing what its users do, and how long they spend, on its platforms.

Whether it’s to get them to click through and buy a product, hit ‘like’, or to just keep endlessly scrolling through ads, social media is a powerful force, and young people are often unaware of its underlying motives.

We want to help children stop and think ‘Why am I seeing this online?’ ‘Why is someone posting this?’ ‘Why is it showing up in my feed?’

They’re not called influencers for nothing

Revealing Reality and the PSHE Association have spent the past 12 months listening to children and young people, to understand how they use social media, what they understand about its influence, and the impact it has on them.

Here’s what we found:

  • Children and young people often assume that content that seems polished or professional, or is posted by people with a large number of followers, is accurate — making the most popular influencers the ones they trust the most.
  • They tend to know that there are traditional ads on social media, but don’t often consider influencers’ motives or spot the marketing tactics in their posts and elsewhere on social media.
  • They underestimate the impact of social media on their lives — they’ve grown up knowing nothing else.

These insights, plus interviews with teachers and time we’ve spent in schools, have helped us think about how we can design these PSHE lessons. We want children to have that "aha!" moment, when they understand how social media works and its potential impact on them.

Introducing "Under the Influence”

The lesson plan component of this research, designed for KS3 and KS4 students, builds important foundational skills over the course of three lessons, including:

  • Personal values: Exploring the difference between pupils’ personal values and the business-driven priorities that dominate social media.
  • Social media business model: Through discussions and activities, pupils explore how social media makes money, and how that could affect what their own experiences using the platforms.
  • Empowered use: The lessons build skills to use social media consciously and apply their critical thinking, aligning with their own needs and priorities.

These lessons are not the end of the road. All our lives are increasingly online, and the rise of altered or AI-generated content is only making it harder to understand what is real and what is fake.

Children and young people deserve far more investment in their skills and understanding of how to make this online world work for them. Revealing Reality and the PSHE Association will not stop here. We will continue to build and improve tools to strengthen their digital literacy. And we want to hear your views — as teachers who are at the sharp end of these issues — around what more is needed and how we can help.