When Students Use Social Media As A Source

social media
(Image credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Increasingly students are turning to TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms when it comes time to research school topics. 

A recent survey (opens in new tab) conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of McGraw Hill finds that 78%, or roughly 3 in 4 students, turn to social media when studying to find supplementary content for their classes. It also shows that 19% of students spend six or more hours per week searching for study content and help with classes on social media.

Other research (opens in new tab) shows that kids and teens spend an average of 91 minutes watching TikTok videos per day. 

While most educators are wary of their students using social media as an information source there are ways that they can help students navigate the various platforms and disinformation. 

Social Media As a Source

Dr. Trey Guinn, chair of communication at the University of the Incarnate Word in Texas, understands the impulse students have to search sites such as TikTok and YouTube for information.  “When I'm talking to my friends, and they say they completed a house project, I often say, ‘How did you know how to do that?' and they're like, ‘Oh, I watched it on YouTube,’” Guinn says. 

Students go to social media to learn in the same manner but what they find there isn't always helpful. “For my students who do turn to social media or YouTube, I question if the content they're getting is quality and actually helping. And in most cases, when they show me what they found it's quite disturbing," Guinn says.  

That’s why Guinn likes to provide his students with high-quality resources that extend beyond the textbook and capitalize on the technology that makes social media so popular. “I have a lot of students who are so intimidated by a big textbook that they wouldn't open it for all the money in the world,” he says. For example, he recommends tools such as Sharpen, a study app from education publishing company McGraw Hill that is designed to mirror the look, feel, and ease of use social media sites provide. It is also vetted to ensure credibility of its sources.

Media and News Literacy  

Regardless of their own feelings about it, social media is something educators need to contend with and can help their students navigate. “Kids are on social media, and it's an undeniable force in our society that can and does have some valuable information and access to experts,” says Christine Elgersma, senior editor for learning apps and websites at Common Sense Education. On the flip side, she says social media is hard to contain and control because the privacy issues can be so extensive. 

Elgersma advises teachers to consult Common Sense Education’s guide (opens in new tab) to social media use for educators. 

One good approach in general is for educators is to ground class exploration of social media in source evaluation. “It’s a great place to practice media literacy and news literacy because those are the sources that students are encountering in their daily lives," she says.  

Providing access to fact-checking sites (opens in new tab) and continuing to teach digital citizenship (opens in new tab) should also be part of any approach involving the use of social media as a research source.

Career Training and Connection With Students 

Whatever misgivings about social media educators may have, students are on these platforms and more frequently consuming history, chemistry, English, and other lessons through these. 

Amanda Granger, director of community engagement at WNET New York Public Media, says recognizing this reality is part of the reason she and her colleagues are working to develop a series of social media videos designed to teach K-12 students about different career opportunities. 

“In public media, we see that we are really able to effectively reach young children and older audiences, but it's incredibly challenging for us to reach youth on broadcast,” she says. “So we've been doing a lot of thinking about how we reach them directly with digital. How do we reach young people directly with content that is accurate, entertaining, informative, and safe for them to consume, since they're going to be on these platforms anyway?” 

Since students spend so much time on TikTok each day Granger says, “Let's meet them there with this content and get them interested and aware of all the different careers that exist.” 

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.