Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Educators across the country can now use interactive tutorials to teach elementary and middle schoolers how to participate positively in social media – while simultaneously learning to navigate some of its potential perils.

The project’s goal is to prepare students to get the most out of social media in a controlled environment, before they inevitably end up there in real life.

Social Media TestDrive, a project run by Cornell’s Social Media Lab in collaboration with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, has partnered with Common Sense Education, a national leader in digital citizenship education, to release six Instagram-like simulations that allow students to learn new skills, try them out and reflect on them. The partnership gives TestDrive a national platform that will bring it into classrooms nationwide.

The tutorials launched as part of Common Sense Education’s new digital citizenship curriculum. Aimed at kids who are curious about social media but don’t yet have their own accounts, the lessons focus on privacy, digital footprints, cyberbullying, online identities and fake news.

“What’s different about Social Media TestDrive is that it allows children to have a hands-on experience in a realistic social media environment,” said TestDrive primary investigator Natalie Bazarova, associate professor of communication and director of the Social Media Lab at Cornell University. “We believe it’s a novel and unique tool that offers the best of three worlds: interactivity and engagement of edutainment games, an instructional component of digital literacy curricula, and hands-on learning with interfaces and interactions similar to those found on real social media platforms.”

TestDrive offers educators and parents a tool to prepare kids to move safely and successfully into life online, said co-primary investigator Janis Whitlock, research scientist and associate director for teaching and training in the Bronfenbrenner Center.

Students can practice in the “free play” area of a realistic social media simulation, where they interact with preprogrammed, scripted bots that act and respond to their posts and comments. They can create posts from a library of photos and like, comment on or flag existing posts. Designed to seem realistic and relatable, the posts range from the benign (“Look at these brownies I made today!”) to the problematic (“First day of grade 7! Come to my house at 22 Eastwood dr if you want to hang!”)

The lessons conclude with questions designed to help learners reflect on what they learned in the simulation and how they can apply it in real life.

“If kids don’t know how to behave in a certain situation, it could lead to harmful results,” said Yoon Hyung Choi, a postdoctoral researcher and TestDrive’s content director and project manager. “These things can be tricky even for adults.”

In 2018, the team piloted TestDrive with more than 200 students through the Cornell Cooperative Extension and 4-H afterschool programs in New York state. In 2019 they tested a newer version with around 200 students nationwide through Common Sense Education.

The TestDrive team is now working on six new simulations, informed by interviews with older students about what they wish they’d known earlier about social media. The team is talking with other potential partners and evaluating the newly launched modules.

The research was supported by Jim and Becky Morgan and the National Science Foundation.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Cornell University has dedicated television and audio studios available for media interviews supporting full HD, ISDN and web-based platforms.