Best Practices

Ask the kids! Looking to research on child development in digital contexts to create a value-based model for social media use

As Program Social Media Fellows, one of our goals is to advocate for the use of social media as an academic medium to foster community and scholarly discourse. We strive to demonstrate how social media can be used to share information about recent publications and upcoming events. But how can we portray the significance of this medium to those who are skeptical about its benefits? How can we respond to those who tell us social media is just going to eat away at time they don’t even have or that it lacks academic gravitas? Rather than simply pleading for the creation of Twitter accounts, how can we communicate the benefits of social media and debunk some of the stigma surrounding it?

As an Educational Psychology PhD student who is interested in digital technology as a context for child development and how digital mediums such as video games can promote learning, I have been thinking about how my research can inform the use of social media within an academic environment. Can we combat some of the bias and skepticism surrounding social media by looking to research on the relationship between digital technology use and learning or well-being? Would making this connection allow us to create a value-based model for effective social media use within an academic context?

Part of the discussion of digital media as a context for development surrounds the topic of semiotics (i.e., the study of sign processes, first coined by Charles Peirce). As symbolic species, we strive to make sense of and represent our surroundings. When examining cognition and learning, we often look to apparent symbols in our environment, and digital technology constitutes one of these symbols. After all, children between the ages of 5-15 typically spend more than 15 hours online per week, and overall use has steadily increased since 2016 (Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, 2017). Therefore, to ignore children’s digital technology use would be to ignore a critical symbol that they use to perceive and act on the world (I recommend David Olson’s recent book “The Mind on Paper” if you are interested in semiotics and how writing acts as a symbol for furthering thought). I think the same conjecture can be made for adults. To ignore our interaction with social media and the social interactions that manifest in these environments, would be to ignore key symbols that we use to make sense of our surroundings. Through uncovering the symbolic systems conveyed by social media, we should be able to communicate the benefits of these platforms.

Researchers have ultimately devoted their careers to investigating children’s interactions with these symbols in order to understand the relationship between digital media and cognition and development. For example, anthropologist Mizuko Ito examined how new media (i.e., a combination of traditional and interactive media) engagement and practices among youth have altered negations between youth and adults concerning socialization, literacy, and learning. Through her research, she found that children were not wasting their time with new media because it provided an opportunity for connected and meaningful learning. It provided an opportunity for children to “geek out” through friendship and interest driven networks. With that said, she pointed to a digital divide of new media usage where digital learning platforms are accessed and utilized in disparate manners depending on the population at hand. She argues that these differences could be contributing to the achievement gap and efforts should be made to promote the awareness of interest-driven networks afforded by the internet. On the same note, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues argued that educational apps are only educational if they include the four “pillars” of learning: active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning. That is, learning is supported by “minds-on” participation with the material. For learning to occur, one must have the ability to avoid distractors, remain attentive, and garner meaning from the material to connect it to prior learning. Learning also occurs when we exchange information through high-quality social interactions and identify a clear common goal. These types of interactions include instances where there is a back and forth between engaged learners of equal or varying skill levels. Yes, think face to face interactions in real life. But equally valuable exchanges can occur during Skype or between an engaged player and an avatar.

We can also look to video game use among children in our quest to uncover a model for effective social media use. Contrary to popular opinion, video-game playing does not impede learning nor is video game engagement associated with aggressive behavior in adolescents. In fact, there are benefits associated with playing video games. Recently, Dr. Jordan Shapiro published  an article in Medium titled “The Case for Playing Fortnite with your Kids” where he creatively debunks some of the myths parents hold about the perils of video games. He highlights the significance of teaching your kids how to live with screens: “Recognize that video games, smartphones, tablets, and social media are not the problem. Instead, it’s the fact that we’re failing to provide our kids with a values-based model for integrating digital technology into their lives.” I think we can readily draw on Shapiro’s argument when communicating the significance of social media for scholarly purposes to skeptics. Of course, social media may not appeal to some and that is okay. The point is that we too should create a value-based model for integrating social media into our academic lives and communicating the benefits of social media.

A value based-model for social media use should be one that draws on the four pillars of learning. It should promote engaged, active, and meaningful learning, along with high-quality social interactions. Value is only met if we establish a common goal. We should think about why we are engaging with the content. Social media is serious, and we can absolutely find value in it. With that said, it will only remain serious if we can garner meaning from the content and remain in active social conversations. What do we hope to learn from the content and what are our short and long-term goals? By doing this, I believe we can begin to foster a sense of community within this interest driven network that is social media.

This is not to say that you must allocate all of your attention to social media. If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through content and isolating yourself from engaging communication, hit the pause button! Take this time to reorient yourself towards your goals and think about how you can reengage with the content. Create mini goals so you do not feel overwhelmed.

Based on some of this research, I would like to propose a few guidelines for effective use of social media for academic purposes:

  1. Brainstorm and identify your short-term and long-term goals. What do you hope to get out of social media? Who are you hoping to engage with? What are you looking for? Social media can serve as a platform for uncovering cutting-edge and recently published articles that may serve to bolster your own research (by the way, I found a majority of the articles cited in this blog on Twitter)!
  2. Actively engage with and find meaning in the content. Try not to passively read tweets or posts. Ask yourself how a post about a certain topic relates to your experience with that topic. What does the post remind you of? Keep your mind on! It is okay to sometimes mindlessly scroll through posts but try to reel yourself back in eventually. Re-orient yourself towards your goal when this happens.
  3. Interact interact interact! You are not alone on social media. Find existing friends and make new ones. Engage with those who share common goals. Meaningfully reply to a topic that is of interest to you. You never know, a research partnership may evolve through some of these interactions. To remain connected, try to meet up with some of these people in real life at conferences or other events.

Overall, just like we think about how children use media, it is critical to think about how we use social media for academic purposes. We must remind ourselves of the reasons we created and are maintaining a digital footprint in the first place.


Cited Studies:

Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report. (2017). Ofcom.

Hansen, J. D., & Reich, J. (2015). Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses. Science, 350(6265), 1245–1248.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3–34.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Cody, R., Stephenson, B. H., Horst, H. A., … Perkel, D. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2019). Computer games in education. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 531–549.

Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2019). Violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behaviour: Evidence from a registered report. Royal Society Open Science, 6(171474).

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