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How to use The Social Dilemma in ELA

Have you seen The Social Dilemma yet? It’s a powerful documentary from Netflix, focusing on how social media is affecting us on personal, political, cultural, and global levels. In so many ways, it’s an ideal text for our students.

First, there’s the content. The Social Dilemma pushes us to consider how tech companies are changing our values, our core behaviors, and our politics. It brings up huge issues with paid advertising, algorithms, the way news is shared, and filter bubbles that we should all know about if we are using the internet to understand our world. With students ever more attached to their phones, and their mental health in more jeopardy than ever before, addressing these issues in class so that students can understand their own technology, reflect on what it means to them, and spend time researching and writing meaningfully about these issues is well worth some class time. It’s also the kind of topic that’s likely to bring a lot of engagement, since students are highly invested in their own internet worlds.

Then, there’s the springboard power of the text. By bringing up so many interrelated issues, it provides a perfect opportunity for critical thinking, discussion, research, written reflection, and argument. There are a million ways to build writing and project assignments around The Social Dilemma, and today I’m going to share some of my favorites. I’m sure you’ll soon have more of your own to add to the list.

Begin by Registering your Screening

The Social Dilemma is a documentary on Netflix, so it’s relatively easy to access. The producers are interested in seeing it shared, to the extent that they even made it freely available on Youtube for a long time. You can register your screening with this form and receive additional materials to help make your showing a success. On The Social Dilemma website, they recommend you consider showing it on or near Feb. 8, which – I recently discovered – is “Safer Internet Day.”

Start with a Survey

Before you launch into your unit, start by inviting students to consider their own internet use. This is a good chance for them to start thinking about the themes of the documentary and reflecting on how those themes relate to their own life. You can make your copy of this pre-viewing survey (and another one for later) right here.

Discussion Option: Hexagonal Thinking

The Social Dilemma is a great text for hexagonal thinking. When I created my hexagons, I used grayscale colors for hexagons related to most of the themes and ideas related to issues and concerns with social media in the film, colors for some of the proposed recommendations and hopeful bits and pieces, and images to try to sum up some of the big overarching ideas.

As students discuss how the different hexagons connect, they have a chance to think back through the big concepts of the documentary, and what possible solutions exist to the problems it raises. The small group conversations can provide a critical thinking base for all the writing, research, and argument that will come next.

(You can find my version of this hexagonal thinking activity here).

Research Projects

As a research-based documentary full of effective interview models, The Social Dilemma is a great springboard for students to tackle research projects of their own. Whether you have them create Instagram-style research carousels, infographics, or their own mini-documentaries, get students researching the topics they find most compelling from within the film.

Here are some topic ideas:

Congressional hearings on big tech

Facebook advertising

Election impact

Hate groups on social media

Technology addiction

Apps to limit social media use

Internet extensions to protect personal data

Social media impact on mental health

Social media impact on objective truth

The evolution of Facebook

The evolution of Instagram

The evolution of TikTok

The Center for Humane Technology

Fake News

Protective Regulations for Personal Data

Algorithms and how they work

Cyber Bullying and Prevention of Cyber Bullying

How to be an upstander on social media

Digital Citizenship

Writing & Reflection

There is a lot to digest in The Social Dilemma. So in addition to reflecting through the survey, and researching the topic(s) they find most interesting, it would be nice to give students a chance to write about some of the topics raised in the documentary. Here are a few possible prompts:

-Make an argument for the age you think kids should be allowed to launch social media profiles. Why do you think that is the right age? Should there be any further limitations from that point onward?

-When social networks began, there were many optimistic dreams of positive connection. Do you think those dreams can still be resurrected? What does it take to use social media in a positive way? How must things change?

-Think about how you represent yourself on social media. Do you feel like you show your real self? If not, why not? Do you think it’s possible to show your real self on social media? Can you think of anyone who does? Use the spaces below to answer whichever questions you find interesting.

A Positive Finish

This unit will address some difficult topics – the way social media can negatively affect mental health, online bullying and hate, the level of control technology seems to wield over humanity. These are not easy themes, though they’re important ones. I think it’s helpful to finish the unit with a chance for students to feel ownership over what they’ve learned and agency in starting to create change if they feel change is in order.

This could look like letting students make action plans for their own tech use. Or inviting them to start a positive social media movement related to what they’ve learned (like a movement to follow varied people outside their filter bubble, to take time away from social media, to understand fake news better, or to stand up against cyber bullying). Or to host an event sharing information from their research with younger kids. The key is to get them thinking about how to take what they’ve discussed, reflected on, researched, and argued about, and put it into action in the world. Are they happy with the world The Social Dilemma presents? And if not, what can THEY do to change it?

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