Social Media TestDrive helps kids prep for life online

Social Media Lab team members Dominic DiFranzo (postdoc), Franccesca Kazerooni (graduate student), Carmen Chan (undergraduate research assistant), and Natalie Bazarova (lab director). photo: Sasha Israel

Social Media Lab team members Dominic DiFranzo (postdoc), Franccesca Kazerooni (graduate student), Carmen Chan (undergraduate research assistant), and Natalie Bazarova (lab director). photo: Sasha Israel

In over a decade of research, the Social Media Lab (SML) has made great strides toward understanding how people use online technologies and social media, and how these tools impact our everyday lives.  We’ve found some interesting things about how people respond to cyberbullying, how relationships form, and how parents talk to their kids offline and online. We know how and why people share secrets, selfies, and social support. We’re just starting to understand how new technologies like virtual reality and social agents - think Siri or Alexa - change how people behave.

On top of all of this research, we’ve spent the last few years trying to bring our research to larger audiences in useful ways. Sometimes this means writing blog posts that synthesize our work in approachable ways, or holding webinars for local communities on social media-related issues. Lab members shared their work at academic and extension conferences.  But the audiences for these posts and talks were relatively small, and we were stuck with the feeling that there was more we could do with our knowledge and energy than just send out a tweet every few days.

Over the past few years, we have already enjoyed strong connections with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) through working closely with Dr. Janis Whitlock, BCTR research scientist; Dr. Elaine Wethington, BCTR associate director, and PRYDE co-investigator; and Amanda Purington, director of evaluation and research at the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence. When Dr. Elaine Wethington shared with us the PRYDE mission to promote productive use of social media among young people, this seemed like  a perfect opportunity for a partnership between the Social Media Lab and PRYDE, to use our knowledge of online technologies to promote positive youth development and engagement in the age of social media.

Fast forward to June 2017, when members of the Lab attended PRYDE’s Youth Research Update with the goal of getting feedback on the progress and future of our projects, especially those relating to cyberbullying and healthy social media use. We wanted to know how our expertise and research findings could best serve the 4-H and other educators who would be present, and through them better serve the youth of New York State. We were lucky enough to be able to engage many of the educators present in small-group discussions about the best way to translate our findings into useful outcomes.

It was one of these discussions that gave us the idea that turned into the Lab’s most ambitious project yet. One of the attendees brought up the fact that while there are plenty of digital literacy curricula out there that aim to teach kids smart social media skills, there’s no way for them to practice these skills before they get online on their own. The group agreed that kids needed a “social media simulator” where they could explore, interact, get in trouble, and learn from experience before creating real-world social media accounts.


These ideas eventually became what we’re calling Social Media TestDrive: an educational platform that creates exactly that kind of simulated social media experience. Kids can learn how to set secure passwords when they log in, practice responding to cyberbullying or rumors as they scroll through their news feeds, and get real-time feedback on their choices and actions as they use the site. The best part? They’re completely safe: the site is separate from the wider internet, and all of the other users are pre-programmed “bots” created by the site’s programmers. 

As of this writing, we’re hard at work creating educational activities that can be delivered on the site, as well as accompanying materials for the 4H educators who will be using the site with the youth they serve. The research team led by the SML post-doc Dominic DiFranzo and the SML lab manager Jessie Taft works with several undergraduate students who get to experience research-extension collaboration first-hand. We’re hoping to deploy the tool to 4H groups and camps this fall. Because it’s delivered entirely online, Social Media TestDrive can be used on any device, anywhere there’s internet access. It even has the potential to spread beyond New York State, and become a useful part of social media education everywhere. We’re excited to keep working with PRYDE as the project expands.

By Natalie Bazarova, SML director, and Jessie Taft, SML manager

Natalie BazarovaComment