From Nickelodeons to Snapchat: Social media and the skills we teach as historians

In a world in which young people are inundated with information, accusations of “fake news” are common, and tensions are high between those who differ in opinion, our students need to know how to consume information, vet other people’s claims, and share their own opinions in respectful ways.  As history teachers, we help them do this—they just need to be reminded sometimes.  This blog post is a reflection on how I reminded my students by teaching about moments in U.S. history when young people alarmed adults with their use of new media and their relationship with popular culture.  These moments resonated with my students, and the connections they made to contemporary debates about social media enabled me to encourage them to take the skills they learned in my course and apply them to their newsfeeds.

I started with nickelodeons at the turn of the twentieth century by assigning excerpts from Chapter IV: The House of Dreams in The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets by Jane Addams.  As we dissected the primary source, my students could not believe the similarities between Addams’ work and contemporary arguments about young people’s use of social media.  Just two examples they identified were Addams’ point about young people’s reluctance to reenter the “real world” when leaving the theater (read: look up from their phones) and fears that what the young saw on screen would fill their minds with immorality.  I allowed my students to make these comparisons, but always directed them back to the primary source by asking them what it was about when and where Addams was writing that led her to these conclusions. To end our discussion, I urged my students to apply these same questions when they come across arguments as they scroll: Who is making the claim? What social circumstances—race, class, age, etc.—might shape when and why they made this claim?

I built on our discussion of Jane Addams a few weeks later using the Payne Fund Studies.  Conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s, these were some of the first studies that sought to understand media’s impact on society by studying how movies affected young people.  Psychologists and sociologists considered a range of topics in the studies, from the relationship between movies’ content and delinquency to how the darkness of theaters disturbed children’s sleep patterns. Again, my students found similarities between these studies and contemporary arguments about the physiological effects of screen time. As for primary sources, I paired parts of Henry James Forman’s sensationalized summary of the studies, Our Movie Made Children, with this interview of a boy in his teens.  In the interview, the boy makes a clear distinction between what he sees on screen and real life, bringing into question the studies’ assumptions about popular culture and young people.  This became the perfect opportunity to emphasize the importance of recognizing assumptions and corroborating evidence, especially on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

In order to continue this theme in the second half of the twentieth century, I used three congressional hearings that investigated the influence of popular culture on young people.  I started with the infamous 1954 “Comic Book Hearings.”  To teach this moment, I had my students read a comic book, listen to an audio clip from the hearings, and introduced them to Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent—all the while emphasizing the context of the Cold War.  A few weeks later, I used video clips of the “Porn Rock Hearings” and “Hip Hop Hearings” in order to illustrate youth (sub)cultures and the moral panics they aroused in the 1980s and 1990s.  In both instances, critics called for the censorship of music that they claimed glorified violence, drug use, and promiscuity, while defenders decried attempts at unlawful censorship.  My students were quick to place these hearings in their broader historical context this time and connected the hearings to the expansion of the War on Drugs and War on Crime. Our discussions made it apparent that my students identified with these moments as they made intriguing comparisons to today when people suggest a causal link between, for example, video games and mass shootings.  These connections allowed me to emphasize the importance of historical context when learning about events in the past and enabled me to prompt my students to think about the context in which they and their friends are posting to social media.

To discuss contemporary youth cultures at the end of the semester, I assigned a few pages about online profiles from Mary L. Gray’s Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America and told my students to peruse their social media profiles. The conversation we had amazed me. Guided by my students, we discussed the accessibility and inaccessibility of social media platforms, the feeling of invisibility and visibility they foster, the inclusive and exclusive practices they encourage, and the information and misinformation they let circulate. We also returned to the questions we asked of our primary sources all semester and thought more about how these questions were relevant to their newsfeeds. I ended class by encouraging them to apply the skills they used in our discussions, such as identifying the appropriate moment to add their own opinion and the decorum necessary for a respectful discussion, to their social media use.

From nickelodeons at the turn of the century to Snapchat today, young people’s use of new media and their relationship with popular culture has both frightened adults and excited the young. History teachers can capitalize on this excitement by incorporating any one of the moments above into their course. Even if these moments might not fit into your course, I hope this blog post has served as a reminder that the skills we teach are applicable to our students’ everyday lives—and they don’t even have to look up from their phones to use them.

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