Linda Bettinger: Education, not legislation, the answer to social media woes

Utah has a curriculum designed to teach media literacy, but the Legislature won’t fund it.

(AP Photo/Stephen Dunn) In this, Dec. 20, 2017, photo, Kathy Malatesta, a teacher librarian at Brookfield, Conn., High School, talks about source citations during the freshman Digital Student class. The required class teaches media literacy skills and has the students scrutinize sources for their on-line information.

The recent Social Media Regulations bill (SB152) passed by the Utah Legislature is troubling on multiple levels.

The time limit restrictions for young users and the requirement to provide government documentation to prove that one is old enough to consume social media are particularly troubling. Providing social media companies with personal data that could easily be compromised is particularly troubling. These measures make me feel like I am living in a police state.

I have a better idea to address the threat of the effects of social media on young people. The answer is education. You may or may not be aware that Utah has an excellent curriculum for library media centers. The curriculum has three strands of emphasis: information literacy, literature and media literacy. In the media literacy strand, professionally trained and certified library media teachers teach kids to become media literate, i.e to become responsible, thoughtful, informed and questioning consumers of media.

As a (now retired) professionally trained library media teacher, I taught my younger students to analyze pictures in picture books for their messages. Then, as they got older we looked at commercials and talked about tricks and hooks and special effects that message creators use to promote their products.

Later we looked at violence in the media and broke it down into four types (violence with a weapon, violence without a weapon, crashes and explosions and verbal violence) and we counted how many acts of violence occurred in their favorite shows or computer games.

We talked about the consequences of consuming so much violence: becoming afraid of the outside world, becoming more violent in our interactions, becoming unwilling to help someone in trouble and wanting more and more violence.

Throughout the entire medial literacy experience in grades K-6 we asked important questions: Who created this media message? What do they want me to believe? What tricks are they using to get my attention? Is what they are saying true? What are they not telling me? Is there another point of view or information that I should consider? What effect does this message have on me? Do I want to buy this game, try this product, adopt this idea or point of view?

All of the things we do to teach media literacy skills are building blocks to becoming critical thinkers, i.e. people who don’t simply believe messages they receive without asking important questions. Our young social media consumers need training to become critical thinkers. It takes time and effort but this is training that leads to the life skill of responsible media consumption and provides students with the skills needed to intelligently and thoughtfully sort through messages on social media and, later in life, messages of media outlets in general.

This brings me to our misguided Utah legislators. Year after year, our legislators have been approached to mandate and fund professionally trained library media teachers who are laying the foundation for this important skill of critical thinking. And year after year, they have refused, leaving the decision to place professionals in the elementary media centers up to the individual districts.

Consequently, over the last few decades schools have steadily opted to place untrained aides in these positions. Currently, there are only a handful of schools in the state that have professionals teaching these critical skills.

I am not naive enough to think that media literacy training will solve all the problems of our run-rampant social media. Surely companies need to step up their responsibility, parents need to be engaged and restrictions need to be put in place as they see fit. But media literacy lays a good foundation for the skill of critical thinking. Media literacy is education for individual empowerment.

And it is education that we need, not legislation.

Linda Bettinger

Linda Bettinger, North Logan, is a retired library media teacher who worked for 31 years in the Cache County School District.