Much of our work at Media Power Youth centers on helping young people understand the role media play in their lives, how they can shape the broader culture of a peer group as well as individual habits and thought patterns. Social media and online communities are not separate spaces that youth visit for a moment of distraction or entertainment. They are where teens live, socialize, learn, and support one another. Young people’s online and offline lives merge seamlessly and, as opposed to many older adults, they are native to both. Today’s teens were born into a wired ecosystem that completely surrounds them and shapes who they will become.
Social connectedness is a protective factor for teens. A 2019 study published in the medical journal, Pediatrics, found that adults who experienced stronger connections as youth were as much as 66% less likely to have mental health issues, misuse substances, and/or engage in violence. Social media platforms are key places where most teens are building and sustaining their connections to others. It is vital that we help students to understand not only how to be good citizens in these spaces, but also how the unique dynamics of digital communities impact their emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
Last year we introduced Screenshots, a middle school curriculum for teens on how to navigate social media. The curriculum recognizes the duality of digital platforms, how they simultaneously bring people together while at the same time creating anxiety and conflict. Students learn how to communicate in positive ways online that build their connection to others and manage their emotions. Media Power Youth provides teachers with lesson plans, media samples, teacher’s guides, and training so educators are fully equipped to implement the curriculum in their classroom.
Prior to the pandemic, the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital conducted an evaluation of the Screenshots curriculum funded by the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness program at the University of Wisconsin. David Bickham, research scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital, says “This study represents a rare evaluation of an in-school digital citizenship program and demonstrates the effectiveness of Screenshots. Students’ increased knowledge of key curricular concepts represents a foundation on which to develop future beliefs and healthy behaviors.” Students also reported that they learned something new from the curriculum and that other students would benefit from learning about these topics.
Media Power Youth is continuing to build on these study findings and work with youth to enhance the curriculum. We have assembled a team of high school student leaders to explore how social media can strengthen and compromise teen mental health and identify what middle school youth would need to learn to build a safe and supportive network online. With their help, we are creating a novel approach for delivering the Screenshot lessons. Our students include Sophia Biondolillo, Regan Earwood, Zoe Henry-Hughes, Abbie Hollingworth-Richards, Amber Houle, Adrielle Martin, Marisa Monahan, Kenneth Olibrice, and Dhruv Penumatsa.
This Youth Design Team was formed in collaboration with the STEM Discovery Lab at UNH Manchester. Together, we have hosted experts in mental health, media literacy, library science, and marketing. Students have reflected on their own social media habits and how online influencers impact others’ thoughts and emotions. They are now leveraging these experiences to create a project-based learning module to build empathy, help middle school students be better communicators, and strengthen the positive relationships that support good mental health. These team members are curating authentic media and other resources to inform these lessons and stimulate engaging class discussions that reflect the everyday choices youth are confronted with online. “I am honored to be a part of the next step towards a solution for the negative impacts social media has on students,” said Regan Earwood. “I hope these lessons will show them that they are more valuable than a post, comment, or tweet.”
These last few months have been an incredible journey of discovery with us learning as much from these student leaders as they have from us. We see this program as the beginning of a deeper relationship with the young people in our community and believe that their voices are essential to solving the broader issue of how technology impacts our well-being. We look forward to experiencing the new pathways that these collaborations will open up for us in the years ahead!