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Florida now mandates that it be taught in public schools. Other states may follow in a bid to deal with the youth mental health crisis.
From requirements on the teaching of African American history to the removal of school books that mention sex to prayer at school events, there’s been a flurry of high-profile, often controversial education news recently in Florida. But one new requirement largely flew under the radar: a law that requires social media literacy be taught in schools.
The mostly bipartisan topic is now part of the curricula at public schools across the state. Legislation signed in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis mandates that students are instructed on the “social, emotional and physical effects” of social media. The law also bans the use of certain social media platforms on devices owned or internet connections provided by public school districts.
Per the bill’s text, students in grades 6 through 12 must be taught, among other things, “the negative effects of social media on mental health, including addiction; the distribution of misinformation on social media; how social media manipulates behavior; the permanency of sharing materials online; how to maintain personal security and identify cyberbullying, predatory behavior and human trafficking on the internet; and how to report suspicious behavior encountered on the internet.”
The law comes as young people are facing high rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Repeated studies have shown that social media can compound and even cause these problems. A May health advisory from the American Psychological Association warned of its potential harm to kids and advised parents to monitor their use of social media. That echoes the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who blamed the youth mental health crisis in part on social media use.
Florida likely won’t be alone for long.
California is currently considering legislation that would integrate social media literacy into the K-12 curriculum when it is next revised. The requirement is part of a wider push for more media literacy among young people.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order in June mandating that the state’s Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services work together to create guidelines for all health education courses to explain “the potential negative impacts of use of social media platforms by children.” Virginia also passed legislation this year mandating education on safe internet use.
Several states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Utah have gone further and instituted age restrictions, curfews and other mandates to make it more difficult for young people to use social media. But observers have argued that teaching children to use social media platforms responsibly is the best way for states to proceed.
“We can either teach kids, this is how you deal with it and put some guardrails in place, or we can take the other approach, which is to put your head in the sand, and say we're going to try and block the bad world from getting to you,” said Andy Green, an assistant professor of information security and assurance at Kennesaw State University, during a July panel discussion at the GovExec State and Local Government Tech Summit.
Indeed, after the APA advisory in May warned of the detrimental effects of social media on young people, open internet advocacy group NetChoice said at the time it showed the need for teaching responsible platform use, rather than banning the technology for teenagers.
“I believe that knowledge is the way forward here, not avoidance,” said NetChoice associate counsel Nicole Saad Bembridge during a panel discussion late last month.
The push for greater social media literacy is in keeping with several states’ efforts to boost the overall digital literacy of their young people, something that has caught on in states like Illinois, New Jersey and others amid worries about misinformation and a lack of civic online reasoning.
The nonprofit Common Sense, which works to empower young people in the digital age, first produced a digital literacy and citizenship curriculum in 2009 and has updated it regularly since. The biggest issue, said Kelly Mendoza, vice president of education programs at Common Sense Education, is fitting it in alongside all the other things schools are coping with currently.
“They're facing so many challenges, like teacher shortages, the mental health crisis and all these other things,” she said. “Where does this fit into instruction, and there's a variety of places that can fit.”
Mendoza suggested that digital literacy could fit in the curriculum with science, civics and language arts. And rather than have a “one size fits all” mandate, schools should be able to decide for themselves where it goes, Mendoza said.
Keeping up with advances in technology is paramount to ensure students are well equipped to be the best digital citizens they can be. Common Sense expects to update its guidance to include sections on artificial intelligence, including generative AI tools like ChatGPT. Those present fresh challenges, especially when it comes to working out how they could and should be used in school.
“There's a lot of potential and possibility to transform education,” Mendoza said. “But right now, there's fear of the unknown. Things are moving so quickly, and teachers have a lot on their plates, it's hard for them to keep up. They're just trying to keep their heads above water and [figure] out how to embrace aspects of AI that are helpful.”
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