What if we taught kids about social media by asking them to reverse engineer it?

Bait. By Zoƫ Hagerman. All rights reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, the parent council at our neighbourhood school hosted an evening lecture by a prominent social media expert. Earlier that day, the speaker had also given tips to all of the junior and intermediate kids in the school, my nine-year-old daughter included. I decided I should probably go to hear the talk so that at home, we would have a shared understanding of the messaging.

The intention of the talk for parents was to highlight the dangers of social media use so that they would feel more empowered to set clear, informed parameters for their children. The speaker made some useful suggestions for parents, based on his experiences in the field of cybersecurity and increasingly as a go-to resource for families who are trying to cope with the often heart-wrenching consequences of social-media activity gone seriously wrong. Given the grave consequences of cyber-bullying, and online harassment, including the unauthorized sharing of images in ways that malign or harm, the speaker’s strong position on the issue of how to parent or how to teach kids to (not) use social media holds a certain validity. He recommends rules, guidelines and consequences when kids break the rules. In his words, “You are the parent. You are the judge and the jury. You can take away their phones.” Sensible, right?

And yet, I left the evening feeling that beyond telling my kids what not to do (e.g., don’t sext; don’t be naive — if you create it and share it, it can be re-shared with anyone; don’t use your phone in your bedroom) the speaker offered me and the other parents in attendance no long-term, realistic, daily methods for supporting better choices, or for having the kinds of conversations that Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the Global Kids Online project have found to be supportive of online resilience.

I’m no “digital parenting” expert, but I do study digital literacies and how we can teach kids to critically evaluate information online. I’ve probably read thousands of articles about teaching and learning in complex systems, and about the ways that teachers can teach digital literacies skills through inquiry and multimodal composition. I teach graduate students on these topics and even lead a summer institute for teachers where we think deeply about digital literacies instructional strategies. And what I’ve come to learn through all of this work is that kids learn in environments where their experiences are honoured, where they feel respected and where there is trust. I’ve also learned that kids learn in guided activity. When they create things, have the opportunity to benefit from more informed perspectives and can reflect on their learning in the presence of a teacher and peers, they’re more likely to acquire advanced critical digital literacies skills (e.g, Coiro, Dobler & Pelekis, 2019; Mills, Stornaiuolo, Smith, Pandya, 2018).

I’ve recently finished Luci Pangrazio’s new book, Young people’s literacies in the digital age: Continuities, conflicts and contradictions (2019, Routledge) and in it, she offers an important provocation for teachers and parents that has me thinking about new ways to help children understand the way the Internet works.

Through her analyses, Pangrazio unravels the diverse and multifaceted ways that young people understand social media. It seems that young people are using social media to write themselves into the world, and to come to know who they are.

Pangrazio writes, “With ongoing technological development and innovation, digital communication and sociality are constantly in flux. […] digital media platforms no longer exist in a separate sphere and, […] have become intertwined with the fabric of everyday life. Social media now mediate the ways in which young people write themselves into being (Sunden, 2003). ” (p. 101). [italics added by me for emphasis]

And yet, the participants in Pangrazio’s study seemed to have limited understandings of the corporate drivers of these important identity spaces. In school, she explains, “the main education in regard to digital media came through cybersecurity programmes” (p.130). And although the programs offered some important information, the messaging was usually meant to “shock” students rather than equip them to be more critical of the way these media are designed.

As I read this, I was thinking about the potential consequences of our need as parents and teachers to “protect” kids from the dangers of the Internet by restricting access. If social media platforms are a part of every day life for young people, and have become a key sphere for identity development, then maybe kids also need more conversations that help them think deeply about how and why these technologies are shaping their identities. Part of the solution, it seems, might be to help kids realize how and for what purposes social media platforms are designed.

In schools, Pangrazio recommends instruction that helps young people understand how the internet is structured (p. 156). The problematic discourse of the digital native has led many teachers (and parents?) to believe that kids know how the Internet works — but evidence suggests that they don’t. Young people often overestimate their knowledge and need explicit instruction that can help them know how what the Internet is, where it comes from, how it is regulated, and used by diverse stakeholders for diverse purposes. To become critical users of social media, young people also need opportunities to unpack the complex design principles driving social media platforms and how information is used by social media companies to advance their corporate missions. Pangrazio suggests that young children can begin by learning key vocabularly such as platforms, algorithms, metrics, personal data, personalisation, profile, online community, security, privacy (p. 156). For older children, she suggests a range of activities that invite them to “reverse engineer” the design of the Internet and social media platforms as a way to reveal the underlying intentions, purposes and design decisions that people have made. “Not only would this approach build technical understandings of digital media, but it would also encourage young people to think about how the architecture of the platform shapes users’ preferences.” When we understand how and why things are made the way they are, we are always more empowered as consumers, users, participants, and citizens.

I would argue that arts-based, multimodal opportunities for expression need to be part of the ways we teach young people about the Internet too. When I ask my fourteen year-old about social media, she usually tells me that she only uses Instagram to DM her friends and doesn’t post anything because it makes her anxious. She doesn’t have Facebook or Snapchat. And yet, I know that this might change. I want to keep having conversations that will help her navigate identity construction in digital spaces, but as I have come to learn, there is no forcing a conversation with a teenager that the teenager doesn’t want to have.

So, she might not want to talk, but it seems she will draw. Entitled Bait, my daughter has used her preferred medium (art) to expose the interests and the architecture of social media. She is reverse engineering — in her spare time — to make meaning. In the image we see a small, child-like character looking longingly at a heart — the promise of connection — under an iphone/deadfall trap that is propped up by a stick. Peeking out from behind the trap we see Instagram and Snapchat poised to pull the wires/string. In this work I see my daughter being incredibly critical of the trap that is social media. I see an awareness of the bait that these companies use to lure in users. As humans, she seems to be suggesting that we crave connection and these companies know it, so they design platforms that are as irresistible as cheese to a mouse.

There are significant implications for this type of drawing as a way to provoke students’ understandings of how the Internet and social media work. Most importantly, evidence suggests that our instructional practices at school and our parenting strategies at home have to include much more critical dialogue about the way social media are designed. Limits are part of the solution, but we have to also create opportunities that allow our kids to understand and be critical of socio-technical systems that may not serve their interests or wellbeing.


Coiro, J., Dobler, E. & Pelekis, K. (2019). From curiosity to deep learning: Personal digital inquiry in Grades K-5.

Mills, K. A., Stornaiuolo, A., Smith, A. & Pandya, J.Z. (2018). Handbook of writing, literacies, and education in digital cultures. New York: Routledge.

Pangrazio, L. (2019). Young people’s literacies in the digital age: Continuities, conflicts, and contradictions. New York: Routledge.

For additional information about parenting in a the digital age, check out Parenting for a digital future, a research-informed resource curated by Dr. Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at London School of Economics.