Should we teach social media in school?

A damning report about Instagram reveals it’s past time for intervention.

Schoolhouse Rock did not prepare me for this. —Kate

“No one taught you how to use Instagram,” Dayna Geldwert, Instagram’s Policy Programs Manager in Safety and Well-being, told me last month. “No one taught you how to use social media and digital technologies. And it's just so fascinating that we all went through seventh grade computer class, but now how are we actually thinking about integrating a really thoughtful curriculum so young people feel prepared to navigate these spaces?”

I’m thinking about this quote again in light of the recent Wall Street Journal report that unearthed internal Facebook data and documents revealing how negatively Instagram affects its younger users, particularly teen girls. 

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” reads one report, which also includes the admission that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.” 

Do we need to change, or does Instagram? Politicians from both sides are already calling for the latter, which will likely play out as a series of statements and hearings and paperwork that won’t do anything for the teenagers and users suffering right now. In the meantime, schools should be making healthy social media use part of their curriculums. 

One of the first times I was taught anything about the internet—other than by stumbling into message boards and comments sections—my high school freshman class was shepherded into the auditorium for a presentation about cyber safety. It included horror stories about sinister old men posing as friendly young strangers on the internet, and a separate unit about cyberbullying (something this same school was woefully unequipped to handle when it was actually happening to me three years later).

In 2008, I wouldn’t expect any of the staff and administrators at my Pennsylvania high school to know what the internet was going to become over the next decade. But over the past five years or so, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media have remained consistent enough for authorities to not only familiarize themselves with the platforms, but also be confident in their roles in students' lives. Why, then, are current teenagers experiencing the exact same mental health issues as me?

After taking a brief look at some current cyber safety curriculums available online, it seems to me that the concept of “safety” is still primarily viewed as remaining safe online from others, people and companies. We need just as much emphasis on keeping users safe from the mental health effects of social media itself, which is a lot less cut and dry. How do you notice when your brain needs a break from social media? How do you identify your triggers and tailor your feeds accordingly? What are the best practices for those who find themselves with a following? How do your relationships with peers play out IRL versus how they might manifest online? 

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these things. But the Wall Street Journal report makes clear that intervention is long overdue, and the earlier someone is conscious of and thoughtful about their relationship with social media, the better they’ll end up years later.