How to teach the fundamentals of social media literacy to children and youth

5 steps to designing effective unit and lesson plans

You might think it would be easy for a digital journalist to teach social media literacy. It wasn’t.

Like many other new teachers, I suffered from the double-edged dilemma of having expertise in my teachable subject, but not enough understanding about how I developed that expertise.

I was a producer at CBC TV’s investigative consumer show, Marketplace. I launched and produced a number of social media campaigns that either promoted, supported, or provided survey data for original reports.

Knowing the steps behind how you became an expert is essential when you’re teaching the foundations of a subject — and especially when you’re teaching those foundations to children and youth.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure (and pain) of reverse-engineering my knowledge, unpacking what I know so that I can teach it to others step-by-step.

Here are the five steps that I’ve used to design effective social media lesson plans in my classrooms, for a variety of age groups, from ages nine to 16.

1. Understand your audience

Obviously, you’re going to need a unique approach depending on the average age of your classroom. Since social media usage is tied to social-emotional learning skills, understanding where your students are in terms of their social and cognitive abilities is vital.

2. Deal with one idea at a time

You don’t have to be a social media producer to have social media expertise, but you’re likely to run into the same problems that I did as a new teacher: where do you start? In this case, it’s basic, but I found much of my focus by following language arts media literacy curriculum guidelines. I’m based in the province of Ontario, whose curriculum follows Bloom’s Taxonomy-like steps in its curricula.

  1. Understanding texts: Help students understand different social media platforms, terminology, and how they work.
  2. Identify techniques: Explore how these platforms use different techniques to communicate and keep you on their platform.
  3. Create: Expand on those techniques in a culminating activity or project that requires students to create something that demonstrates their understanding (i.e. an outline for a social media platform of their own that appeals to only a specific audience, like people who like dogs or people who play Fortnite).
  4. Reflect: Have students share their projects and reflect individually or in groups about what they learned about different social media platforms

3. Make it personal

If you’re a public school teacher, you’re almost certainly going to have to differentiate your lessons for a larger class with a variety of learners — from tech noobs to tech experts and everyone else in between. The easiest way to diagnostically assess how much knowledge your students have before instruction is to focus on the personal.

Why not introduce your unit by asking how students use social media, and then comparing their usage to others of the same age?

You can use this data to create trivia games or self- or peer-assessment quizzes. It also neatly organizes an overview of topics your lesson(s) could introduce:

4. Integrate deep knowledge

  1. Digital media are networked.
  2. Digital media are persistent, searchable and shareable.
  3. Digital media have unknown and unexpected audiences.
  4. Digital media experiences are real, but don’t always feel real.
  5. How we respond and behave when using digital media is influenced by the architecture of the platforms, which reflects the biases and assumptions of their creators.

5. Make your lessons matter

Once students learn the fundamentals of social media communication, how can they use their knowledge to empower themselves and others to make positive change?

An example of a digital citizenship project is for students to develop a social media campaign for a local issue; it could be political, it could be community-service-related or a charitable fundraising campaign.


1. Livingstone, S. (2014). Developing social media literacy: How children learn to interpret risky opportunities on social network sites. Communications, 39(3).

2. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2006). The Ontario Curriculum: Grades 1-8: Language. Retrieved from

3. Common Sense Media. (2015). The common sense census: media use by tweens and teens. Retrieved from

4. Media Smarts. (2013). Digital media literacy fundamentals. Retrieved from

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