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

Bait. By Zoë 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.

CSSE-SCÉÉ19: Layered literacies practices during a Maker activity

À la conférence de la Société canadienne pour l’étude de l’éducation à Vancouver, ma collègue Julie-Anne Turner et moi présenterons nos recherches collaboratives, faites avec Megan Cotnam-Kappel et Janette Hughes, sur les dimensions des littératies observées au cours d’une activité Bricoleur. Voici les diapos où nous résumons notre projet.

The working draft of this article is available for download here.

Suggested citation: Hagerman, M.S., Turner, J-A., Cotnam-Kappel, M. & Hughes, J.M. (2019). Layers of online reading, research and multimodal synthesis practices while Making: A descriptive study of three fifth-grade students [draft]. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Studies in Education (Vancouver, Canada). Retrieved from http://mschirahagerman.com/2019/06/05/csse-scee19-layers-of-online-reading-research-and-multimodal-synthesis-practices-while-making-a-descriptive-study-of-three-fifth-grade-students/

Digital Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities: CATE Panel @CSSE 2019

Speaker Notes


I’m really privileged to participate in an open panel discussion on Rights and Responsibilities of Digital Citizenship at the Canadian Society for Studies in Education conference. I’ve posted my slides here plus a link to my speaker notes. The references that I’ve used to think through these remarks are offered here for anyone interested in some good reading that raises lots of questions for how we can design teacher education programs that address the first principle of Canada’s new Digital Charter — Universal Access.


Bråten, I., Strømsø, H. I., & Britt, M. A. (2009). Trust Matters: Examining the Role of Source Evaluation in Students’ Construction of Meaning within and across Multiple Texts. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(1), 6–28. http://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.41.1.1

Bråten, I., Britt, M. A., Strømsø, H. I., & Rouet, J.-F. (2011). The Role of Epistemic Beliefs in the Comprehension of Multiple Expository Texts: Toward an Integrated Model. Educational Psychologist, 46(1), 48–70. http://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2011.538647

Chaput, M., & Champagne, A. (2012). Internet, New Media and Social Media. Report of The Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages. Retrieved from https://sencanada.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/411/ollo/pdf/03issue.pdf

Chaudron, S., DiGioa, R. & Gemo, M. (2018). Young children (0-8) and digital technology: A qualitative study across Europe. Joint Research Centre (European Commission). Retrieved from https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/1f8b73cc-d900-406a-927c-0f8c0f202ed4/language-en/format-PDF/source-72882538

Fontaine, T. (2017). Digital Divides in Canada’s Northern Indigenous Communities: Supports and Barriers to Digital Adoption [Master’s Thesis, University of Alberta]. Retrieved from https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/f6dcc43c-32c1-43f9-bcc6-2f26b27a25a0/view/6808f505-b306-42fc-8b86-f95f86769737/Fontaine.pdf

Fry, H. (2018). Hello world: Being human in the age of algorithms. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. https://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?id=4294996838

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (2019). Canada’s digital charter: Trust in a digital world. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/062.nsf/eng/h_00108.html

Haight, M., Quan-Haase, A., & Corbett, B. A. (2014). Revisiting the digital divide in Canada: The impact of demographic factors on access to the Internet, level of online activity, and social networking site usage. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 503–519. http://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2014.891633

Hargittai, E. (2010). Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the “net Generation.” Sociological Inquiry, 80(1), 92–113. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.x

Hargittai, E., & Shaw, A. (2015). Mind the Skills Gap : The Role of Internet Know-How and Gender in Contributions to Wikipedia. Information, Communication & Society, 18(4), 424–442.

Idris, I.K. (2019, March) Facebook has shut down accounts spreading fake news, but is it accountable? https://theconversation.com/facebook-has-shut-down-accounts-spreading-fake-news-but-is-it-accountable-113037

Kohnen, A. M., & Mertens, G. E. (2019). “I’m Always Kind of Double-Checking”: Exploring the Information-Seeking Identities of Expert Generalists. Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0), 1–19. http://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.245

Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy, C., & Timbrell, N. (2014). The new literacies of online research and comprehension: Rethinking the reading achievement gap. Reading Research Quarterly, 85, 1–23. http://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.85

O’Donnell, S., Beaton, B., McMahon, R., Hudson, H.E., Williams, D., Whiteduck, T. (2016, June). Digital technology adoption in remote and northern Indigenous communities in Canada. Canadian Sociological Association 2016 Annual Conference, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. Retrieved from http://susanodo.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2016-CSA-Digital-Technology-Adoption.pdf

O’Neil, K. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increase inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Crown Random House. https://weaponsofmathdestructionbook.com/

Pariser, E. (2012). The filter bubble: How the personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. New York: Penguin Random House. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/309214/the-filter-bubble-by-eli-pariser/9780143121237/

Sanders, S. (2016, November 8). Did social media ruin election 2016? https://www.npr.org/2016/11/08/500686320/did-social-media-ruin-election-2016

Shade, L.R. (2016). Integrating Gender into Canadian Internet Policy: From the Information Highway to the Digital Economy. Journal of Information Policy, 6(2016), 338. http://doi.org/10.5325/jinfopoli.6.2016.0338

Stanford History Education Group. (2016). Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. Retrieved from https://sheg.stanford.edu/civic-online-reasoning

Stockdale, D. (2017). Why we should hold Facebook responsible for Fake News. Centre for Digital Ethics and Policy. Retrieved from https://www.digitalethics.org/essays/why-we-should-hold-facebook-responsible-fake-news

Thompson, E. (2019, May 7) Ethics committe votes to subpoena Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to testify Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/facebook-zuckerberg-cambridge-analytica-1.5127007

van Strien, J. L. H., Brand-Gruwel, S., & Boshuizen, H. P. a. (2014). Dealing with conflicting information from multiple nonlinear texts: Effects of prior attitudes. Computers in Human Behavior, 32, 101–111. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.11.021

Wachter-Boettcher, S. (2017). Technically wrong: Sexist apps, biased algorithms, and other threats of toxic tech. New York: W.W.Norton & Company. http://www.sarawb.com/technically-wrong/

Wineburg, S., & McGrew, S. (in press). Lateral reading and the nature of expertise: Reading less and learning more when evaluating digital information. Teachers College Record. Retrieved from https://purl.stanford.edu/yk133ht8603

Repost: “The Makerspace is the heart of our school” : A model for Making that values community, inclusion, and student agency

Joël Desjardins teaches students to edit green screen video footage in their Makerspace.

Ceci est une deuxième version, légèrement rédigée, de l’affichage blogue qui a été publié premièrement au site web du International Literacy Association. Vous pouvez accéder à cette première version ici.

This is a version of a post that first appeared at the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today Blog. I have been contributing to their Teaching with Tech series since 2012. You can read the ILA version of the post here.

Joël Desjardin’s decision to become an elementary teacher was driven, in part, by his personal belief that to thrive in school and in life, many children need learning conditions broader than those offered by traditional paradigms. As we talked about the impact of the Makerspace that he has worked tirelessly to establish over the past two years with colleagues, his voice resonated with passion, and a deep respect for his students and their learning needs.

The Makerspace is the heart of our school. When I was a kid, the gym was the heart of community in the school. Whenever there was a big event, we all gathered in the gym […] But I see the Makerspace as our “gym”. Our whole community can’t gather here physically but we do use technologies in the Makerspace to create community, to bring us all together — through our TéléMC newscasts, for example. And, the comings and goings in this space are incredible […] The kid who comes in here and finds that he can make something driven by his own interests — he’ll keep coming back to school. That’s what will keep him here.” *

In the Makerspace, Joël’s mission is to create the conditions and cultivate the relationships that will enable every child to find their voice, strengths, and purpose. More than 60% of students attending this school have lived in Canada for fewer than three years, and many do not speak French (the language of instruction) at home. In Joël’s words, “We’re imposing Canadian culture and language on these kids, and then we’re imposing Canadian schooling on top of that — they need to have spaces inside of these systems where they can leverage what they know, where they feel competent, capable and valued.

As they work to support students’ language and literacies learning, Joël and his colleagues understand that their work is also fundamentally about creating an inclusive community where students can find connections to themselves as they develop new identities as learners, as Makers, and often, as first-generation Canadians.

I think the work happening in this school can inform the design of culturally sensitive, social-justice oriented Maker pedagogies for literacies learning everywhere. Here are two examples that could inspire other school communities to imagine new possibilities for their Maker programs.

Café Altern

This spring, sixth grade students from Joël’s school visited Café Altern, a coffee shop in Ottawa’s Byward market, run entirely by high-school students and their teachers. For Joël’s students, the purpose was twofold. First, he wanted to expose them to the program which is designed for high-schoolers seeking pathways to employment through entrepreneurship. Secondly, he wanted his students to practice their media literacies skills. To this end, groups of students planned for, and then interviewed a Rwandan-Canadian artist whose work is exhibited in the Café, a local chef who supports the café, and the teachers and students who run daily operations. Using the industrial kitchen, the sixth-graders also learned to make, prepare, and then sell Maple Syrup that they had tapped from trees at school (using spiles that they 3D printed in the Makerspace). Post visit, the students used 10 hours of class time to edit their footage in WeVideo and create two-minute videos promoting the Café. In my view, this activity integrates layers of culturally situated, physical and digital meaning making, centred on community partnerships and student agency.


With a team of student media makers, Joël also produces the morning announcements which they livestream on the school’s Youtube channel from their Makerspace every morning. For these students, Joël cites vast improvement in confidence and oral communication skills. Every Friday, the team produces a longer newscast that includes highlights of the week, and explores an important theme.

Last week, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia,  their newscast focused on equipping the school community to understand what it means to be LGBTQ2+, to recognize and reject LGBTQ2+phobic language and behaviors, and to emphasize the importance of LGBTQ2+ people in their school community. Especially poignant — the principal, who co-hosted this special newscast, drew a picture of his own family, showed photographs of his family celebrating important moments together, and explained that his children have two dads. With more than 250 views for this newscast alone, the work in this Makerspace is reaching community beyond the school walls, and equipping students and faculty to understand and use a shared language of inclusion.

As Joël, his colleagues, and his students show us, a school Makerspace can become its heart — a place where technologies can be used to make meanings that strengthen, empower and create more inclusive communities.

*Joël approved my translations of his words, gave me permission to use his real name in this blog post, and to use this photo of him teaching in the Makerspace. The school’s Youtube channel is public. The principal of the school also reviewed the post and gave his support.

Je suis entièremement reconnaissante des contributions des élèves et de toute l’équipe @EEPMarieCurie. C’est un vrai privilège de pouvoir suivre et de documenter leurs activités d’apprentissage et d’enseignement au sein de leur Makerspace.

New Article: Digital literacies learning in contexts of development

In July of 2018, the International Development Research Centre of Canada invited me to conduct an external review of key findings in a set of 44 reports of research on digital learning. The reports, funded between 2016 and 2018 were incredibly diverse in their methods, questions, and findings. That report (currently in press with the IDRC) can be found here.

At the same time Dr. Hiller Spires of NC State University issued a call for papers for a special edition of Media and Communication called “Critical Perspectives on Digital Literacies: Creating a Path Forward”. My paper, entitled Digital literacies learning in contexts of development: A critical review of six IDRC-funded interventions 2016-2018 will appear in this special edition and should be published online by the end of May, 2019. Thanks to the open access policies of this journal, I can share a pre-print of the article here for anyone interested in reading the full text.

New Paper: AERA 2019

This week, I am privileged to present, with my colleagues Dr. Megan Cotnam-Kappel, Julie-Anne Turner and Dr. Janette Hughes, a report of research on the layered literacies practices used by three fifth-grade students as they worked through phases of an interdisciplinary project that included elements of online reading and research, Making, and multimodal composition. In a post-truth world where information is complex and always shifting, it is important for children to come to know that knowledges — in all of their forms — are constructions. We therefore need pedagogies that position and empower children as meaning makers, and idea assemblers themselves. This work is helping us to consider the ways that children make meanings during these types of multidimensional projects as a starting place for future research on student agency and the potential for Making to support students as they learn to become more critical readers, writers, and participants in all of the literacies landscapes they navigate.

Suggested citation: Hagerman, M.S., Cotnam-Kappel, M., Turner, J.-A., & Hughes, J.M. (2019, April 8). Layers of online reading, research, and multimodal synthesis practices while making: A descriptive study of three fifth-grade students. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Toronto, ON.

Beyond the Screentime Debate: NCTE Panel Presentation

With colleagues, I will be adding my perspectives on children and screentime to an important session at the NCTE Annual Convention in Houston, TX today.

From our proposal: “There are legitimate concerns about children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being; yet conversations about screentime focus predominantly on the time spent on devices, often overlooking fundamentally important questions about what youth are learning by using technology. How do we navigate our own parenting lives when we are immersed in a field that values critical and creative use of devices, both in school and out, in order to build skills that are necessary for success in today’s world? What challenges do we as educators and parents face? How do we approach parenting in an age of screentime?

This session will bring together teachers and professors who are also parents to explore these questions and the notion of screentime itself. The opening keynote will situate the context by exploring the following questions. How is screentime portrayed in the media? Is all screentime created equal? What do we actually know from research? Then roundtable presenters will share challenges faced as parents.”

For my part, my Ignite-style talk (which, if you’ve never done one or seen one is 20 slides, timed to transition every 15 seconds) explores the challenges and opportunities that Virtual Playgrounds offer tweens going through tough transitions. Soon after we moved to Ottawa, my then 10-year old daughter started playing in a virtual world called Animal Jam. She loved it because her friends from school were playing, and as she told me in a conversation a couple of months ago, she felt successful there. At a time when everything was new, and she was always “the new girl” at school, she could be special in Animal Jam because she had “rare items” such as a coveted pair of butterfly wings. One afternoon, though, the wings were stolen by another player. Through her sobs, my daughter admitted she was tricked into giving out her account password by someone who had been her “friend” for some time in the game.

In the talk I offer five insights that align with and extend research on tweens’ virtual play in these kinds of virtual worlds. I also offer three big take-aways that could inform teaching and research.


  • For tweens, virtual playgrounds are about making and strengthening friendships.
  • Virtual worlds are an onramp to social media platforms and participation.
  • In virtual playgrounds tweens can feel more successful, powerful, liked, important and altruistic than they feel at school.
  • Getting scammed in a virtual playground can teach children important life lessons about trust.
  • Kids need grounded, lived experiences, not lectures about “not giving out their passwords”.  Kids don’t believe they’ll be scammed — but when they are scammed, they learn.

Implications for Teaching and Research

  • Creating safe opportunities for kids to experience online scams could be an effective approach to teaching online interactions, safety and citizenship. Role play online scams and then talk about it with students.
  • Open reflection over time with a loving adult, and without fear of judgment, seems important. My daughter was ashamed at first. She knew what she did. But reflection in the short and longer term has allowed her to articulate why she was tricked and learn from her mistake.
  • For tweens going through tough transitions, online games can be important social onramps. But parents and teachers need to help kids find other ways to connect with friends and community in real (rather than virtual) life too.

Online and Offline Resilience?

Going through a difficult move, and then experiencing an online deception left my daughter feeling vulnerable. However, situating stress in opportunities for connection and conversation may enable tweens to become more resilient both online and offline. As a parent, this is my hope. As a researcher, this question warrants future study.

The full transcript of my talk, with the interview that I conducted with my daughter, Zoë, can be found here.

I have published all of this with her permission, but I ask that if you use this talk, or the transcript of our conversation for any reason (research, professional development sessions etc.) that you do not use images of my daughter, or of her art, without permission from me.

Thanks to Kristen Hawley Turner, Troy Hicks, Tom Liam Lynch, Bill Bass, Lindy Johnson, Sara Kajder, Lauren King, William Kist, Ian O’Byrne, Kristy Pytash, Michelle Walker, Angela Wiseman, Carl Young and Andrea Zellner for their work for this panel and for their collaborations on this session.


Kafai, Y.B. & Fields, D.A. (2013). Connected play: Tweens in a virtual world. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.