Episode 24: Social Media Literary with Rob Greenfield
Robert “Rob” Greenfield is a history and social science teacher and the digital literacy coordinator at Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts. In 2019, he created a full year senior history and social science elective called Digital Media and the Impact of the Internet, which examines the individual and societal impact of digital media with a focus on smartphones and social media. Greenfield has led standalone seminars on current topics in digital media for schoolwide offerings, as well as grade-level presentations on the impact of smartphones on student cognition and mental health. His most recent seminars include Twitter and Elon Musk, as well as Facebook‘s role in the January 6th Insurrection.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nati Rodriguez [01:34]
Well, thank you so much for joining us. This is a very timely topic. We’ve had a couple of sessions on student mental health and definitely interested in how social media and the Internet impact students and their learning. Today I’d love to hear about the courses you’ve designed and that you currently teach. Can you give us a summary of the course and learning objectives?
Rob Greenfield [02:00]
Sure. The origin of it was just a couple of years ago in 2019. I had read a bunch of stories about how designers of technology were keeping their own kids away from some of the devices that they had created themselves and so that got me down this road of thinking about what they knew about it that the rest of us didn’t. What I had concluded was that all of us were largely aware, and the kids were largely aware, of the benefits of technology because it’s marketed to us all the time, but not necessarily the costs of the technology, technology use, and social media use.
I wanted to create a course that brought awareness to both the benefits and costs of the technology we’re interacting with and the digital media we’re interacting with every day. The course is really a narrative history of the Internet paired with this analysis of the individual and societal impact of the digital media we’re interacting with every day with the goal of creating awareness of the impact of the media and mediums that we and the kids are interacting with every day.
Nati Rodriguez [03:08]
Thank you for giving us that summary. I read your syllabus, and it approaches the topic from different perspectives as you mentioned, historical, psychological, sociological, political, and economic. What has this experience been like for you and the students that you teach as you’re studying a topic that’s constantly changing?
Rob Greenfield [03:27]
The first year of the course was 2019-2020, which is the pandemic. This has been really interesting, and I feel like I’m even just getting caught up with some of this stuff. It’s funny because the first year of the course, TikTok was something that the middle school kids were on, and it was this really embarrassing thing.
Obviously, things have changed exponentially since then. TikTok is an essential part of the course now and thinking about the broader implications of it. It’s really exciting just because a lot of the analysis of digital media is catching up with it three or four or five years down the road. Researchers are just figuring out the impact of something like TikTok in particular because it’s so new. That is very exciting just because it’s so new and fresh and also relevant for the kids and it’s also a whirlwind.
I do learn a great deal from them because they’re on the platforms that we’re talking about a lot more than I am in a lot of cases. I do learn a great deal from them and how they’re using it yet, because these platforms are designed to take away the awareness of their impact and how long we’re on there and what we’re seeing on there, I’m able to fill some gaps, in an educational setting, of how it might be influencing them in ways that maybe they’re not thinking of.
Nati Rodriguez [04:57]
What have been some of their takeaways or ‘aha’ moments that they didn’t realize were happening in their usage of these tools?
Rob Greenfield [05:07]
I’m teaching seniors, and so they have a really solid understanding and awareness – it’s almost like the damage has been done in some ways. They’re generally aware. They’ve been told a lot of the times that, “okay, you’re on your phone too much, social media, etc. This is influencing it some bad way.”
Maybe they’ve heard it at home or from teachers or everything else. I think some of the stuff where they are a bit shocked is the extent to which some of these platforms try to keep them on the devices and on the apps themselves; and the extent to which their own psychology is being used to keep them on there and then the extent to which they’re being tracked. I think the privacy situation – the lengths to which the companies will go to gather data on them and how that data is used – I think those have raised eyebrows from kids when they learn about some of this stuff.
Nati Rodriguez [06:05]
Have you seen any change in behavior? I know you probably have them for a semester or a year, but have students expressed changing behavior?
Rob Greenfield [06:15]
I think awareness is the first step. I think a couple of years down the road, often, some kids will come back and say, “Hey, I thought about what you said on this day about this.”
In some ways, maybe the changes don’t happen right away. I’m hoping, and I think some kids have testified that it’s planting a seed for them that going forward, whenever they’re interacting with something new that comes up like TikTok or whatever the next thing is, or ChatGPT, some of these questions that we’ve used as a framework in this class, can pop up again in the future for them, and they can use it as a way to develop a skeptical view of technology in a way that they hadn’t before.
Nati Rodriguez [06:54]
Yes, I could see that. I saw one of the assignments in your syllabus where they’re asked to choose a photo or draw a picture, create a meme, that shows their own relationship with their smartphone. I’m curious what you’ve seen students create and what has stood out to you?
Rob Greenfield [07:12]
Yeah, it’s really fun seeing these things because the kids are incredibly honest about this. I feel like in a lot of ways are looking to figure out a way to articulate how they’re feeling about this, about their relationship with their phone and their relationship with social media. To give them a space to be creative about it, to discuss stuff in class, but also to create assignments that express how they’re feeling – we get these really honest portrayals of incredibly clear and aware of their own relationship with it. The vast majority are aware, and I think this is where sometimes they push back against adults. If you ask them about their relationship with their phone, often times it’ll be the same as what we would say, which is something along the lines of – they take a look at their screen time and they’re like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I was on it for or 12 hours straight,” or “I can’t believe that I was on the phone for this much this weekend.”
There’s an internal finger pointing that they go through that I feel like I know I experience that when I look back at some of my screen time over the course of a couple of weeks. The issue for them, and I think the issue, I think for us as well is, what do we do about that?
Particularly the social stuff in high school is so acute, where they feel like they need to be on it constantly and in a lot of ways, not in a bad way, just to be there for their friends or to check in on somebody who might be struggling. They feel this pull to keep the phone on them at all times, to respond to notifications, etc. So, removal for them is not really an option in a lot of cases because they want to be there socially for their friends. They use it for so many things, whether it’s school or a calendar or whatever they’re using it for academically.
Yet it’s still this super addictive device and still gets them in ways that they don’t want to be on there for so long. Their work, what they’ve turned in, has really been a reflection of that frustration and tension of “I know that it’s a problem, I know that I’m on there. I feel like I’m on there too much for these reasons, however, what do I do about this?”
Nati Rodriguez [10:14]
I think I read in one of the assignments where they were reflecting on or anticipating going to college and not wanting to be on their phone all the time so that they do have time and space to connect with new people, new setting and new learning environment. I’m curious about those students that have returned back if they’ve spoken to that, is that pull as severe once they get to college versus high school?
Rob Greenfield [10:41]
Yeah, a former student was texting the other day, to see if we could meet up to chat about how he’s doing. I feel like talking to him and a couple of others – I do feel the social pressure is not quite as acute in college as it is maybe in high school or pressure to be connected.
I’m teaching seniors now, and they don’t feel it nearly as much as maybe they did freshman, sophomore year, 8th grade, 7th grade, and middle school. They’re phasing out of this dramatic pull to be on there. They still feel it because some seniors have expressed and some kids coming back from college say, “Oh yeah, I was upset with my Instagram usage, or I didn’t want to be on Instagram as much so I deleted it for a couple of weeks and then I re-uploaded it again because there was something happening, whatever it was.”
It’s like so much of it, is that – even attempts to find this middle ground between removal and complete immersion that is really tricky to find. In some ways it’s why I started the course, because we get to find that middle ground and to navigate that, I think it’s really tricky for adults. I think kids need all the help they can get.
Nati Rodriguez [11:53]
Yes. So that brings me to another question, this is an elective at your school?
Rob Greenfield [11:59]
Nati Rodriguez [12:00]
So not every student in this high school is experiencing this course. Do you have any sense of, at a district level or a site level, whether there is support for students that are managing mental health issues and everything that adolescents go through with technology, like you are in this course?
Rob Greenfield [12:22]
There is a lot of district support and school support for mental health. It’s been a focus, at least for our school, anecdotally, just because out of the pandemic, a lot of students were dealing with and had more struggles with mental health because of the loss of in-person connection and all the psychological stuff that went with that. As far as what social media’s role in it is, that was where I felt there was space for more educational settings to grow around that and what effect that might be having on them mentally, we could bring awareness to, and also what effect that might be having on relationships, etc; the sociological questions surrounding that. There was space for more folks to develop questions around that and settings that kids could discuss.
Nati Rodriguez [13:26]
Will you tell us about the standalone seminars on current topics? How are teens processing events like January 6?
Rob Greenfield [13:34]
Yeah. The elective I created was for seniors. You mentioned before not all students were being taught this content. I taught the course for a couple of years, and students were frequently expressing the fact that they wish they had known some of this stuff sooner – it might have helped them have a more solid understanding of how the device was affecting them or how social media was affecting them.
I started to create these standalone lessons or seminars on particular topics – I offered to individual classes, if teachers wanted to invite me in to talk about it, or school wide offerings like the impact of smartphones on cognition and mental health. Last year, there was the Facebook files, the Instagram revelations from Frances Haugen – the whistleblower, talking about Facebook’s internal research and how Instagram was really affecting teen mental health negatively, and particularly girls ‘mental health negatively.
I started to offer those to teachers and to more schoolwide offerings last year. As the digital literacy coordinator this year, keep on going with that to expand it to current topics like TikTok and disinformation. Whether it’s with the Ukraine war, it was referred to as the first TikTok war. This TikTok thing has been around for a few years now, and researchers are starting to figure out that this might be a cesspool of misinformation and bad actors were able to use the short form video medium to spread disinformation. If students are on there for hours and hours a day, how might disinformation be spreading on TikTok and what to look for to recontextualize things that appeared on TikTok?
This year, the two big happenings so far were, the Elon Musk Twitter takeover and Facebook’s role in the two-year anniversary of January 6 and thinking about Facebook’s role. The idea being Twitter and Facebook trying to impart and trying to spread some awareness of how the changes in the algorithms might impact everything from the mental health of the students individually, and their relationships, to also really broad societal level changes like polarization and in the worst cases, violence. Thinking about seminars in those ways that any teachers who signed up to bring their kids, the idea was to generate more awareness of the impact of these platforms.
Nati Rodriguez [16:04]
I guess I’m wondering as a student, what is their takeaway or what do they feel empowered to do or not do or think about? I know they’re getting the experience of thinking critically about how these tools are impacting their lives. Are there any actions that they can take if they don’t want to experience this or lessen the damage?
Rob Greenfield [16:25]
I find it way easier, and I think maybe this is a general situation or general problem, but I find it way easier to identify and talk about the problems as opposed to the solutions to them. I think the solutions to them are hypothetical in a lot of cases. In a lot of cases, they’re tricky.
We’re in this unprecedented situation, where technology has embedded itself in our daily lives so much minute by minute, it’s really hard to imagine a different future where maybe these things aren’t as toxic in some ways or maybe we have societal shifts in our collective relationships to technology. At the end of every one of these seminars, I try to think about solutions in three ways.
Individually, what can we do to get those really good parts of these applications and use them in a way that helps our mental health, that helps social justice, that helps us both individually and collectively, and also takes away some of the more detrimental effects of them.
If engagement drives a lot of the more hateful posts on Facebook and Instagram, what can we do as individuals to think about – even if there’s a post that triggers me and triggers my emotions in a way that gets me to respond to a post, even if I respond to that post trying to tackle hatred trying to make sure that I’m saying the right things and folks who are spreading hate are refuted in a way – I still might be contributing to the spread of hateful posts. Individually, that’s what I can do. I can maybe stay away from the platforms more, and I can also then not engage as much with the more toxic stuff so that I don’t spread it as much.
The next layer of it is collective, societal action. What can we do together to make sure that the more detrimental effects are mitigated or avoided? That gets into some tricky territory because some of the stuff is imagining the future that doesn’t exist. It’s really hard for adults to do that, but because the kids know the platform so well, I find that for some kids, seeing the issues with it is actually easier in a lot of ways than it is for us. I think that’s part of what I signed up to do, and part of my job with this course, and these seminars, is to try to get kids to imagine how this could be different.
There are always folks who are super into technology in the audience, whether they’re coding or if they’re more tech-savvy than I am, and everything else. What might be some tech-based solutions to the issues? In the future when these kids are starting businesses or starting their own media platforms, can they come up with algorithms and generate algorithms, that have both commercial profit and the public good in mind and having more ethical design, around some of these algorithms and future media companies?
Nati Rodriguez [19:29]
Yeah, we’re optimizing for something else and the something else is what we want our world to be.
Nati Rodriguez [19:57]
How long have you been in the teaching profession and what changes have you seen as students have started to use smartphones in their daily lives and in the classroom?
Rob Greenfield [20:10]
It’s funny, maybe this is a pandemic effect, but I can’t remember what it was like before the pandemic. I don’t think it was as much of a constant whack-a-mole issue in the classroom – have it be this constant presence before the pandemic, but I know during and post-pandemic, we’re in the wake of it now, phones have been quite a challenge in school and particularly when we returned to full in-person learning. I think a lot of folks, anecdotally, around here felt a pretty significant change in the relationship between them and the devices. They were just a lot more present; they were being taken out without abandon. There was just this massive uptick in usage, particularly during class, and then also more defiance when we asked them to put it away.
At the beginning of this year in our school, teachers and admin were on the war path. We’re going to try to get control of the situation again, try to use them in ways that are helpful and really when we do not want to engage with them, to try to really set parameters around – ok, what are we going to use them for in the classroom.
I put together a presentation at the beginning of the year for faculty on the impact of smartphone use and learning and cognition, just to give teachers some ammunition to say, “Hey, smartphones are great for these reasons, but as far as learning and cognition goes, the research is pretty conclusive. The closer they are to you, the worse our thinking gets and all that stuff,” – just to try to empower teachers to take a harder line, if they wanted to, on phones.
I gave grade level presentations here at Newton North and also at Newton South on the impact of smartphones and cognition and mental health. Just, again, to try to get kids to understand when teachers say put the phone away, they’re not coming from a punitive place. They’re trying to just put that aside so that we can do what we need to do. Because the ultimate worry for teachers here was – if kids have the phone out and we tell them to put it away, and it already starts this thing with the relationship where it’s like, it’s just been a tough thing. To try to take it off of the kid – it’s not the kid’s fault – this is a real, super addictive device; a lot of times they can’t help it and to try to make sure we preserve the relationship at the beginning by setting some clear parameters.
Nati Rodriguez [22:42]
How has that gone?
Rob Greenfield [22:45]
Anecdotally, the recalibration has worked. There are still pockets of folks struggling with it, The expectations around it, again coming out of the pandemic – I don’t want to speak for all the teachers around here, but I’ve personally felt this – where if the phone is their connection to their friends and family during the pandemic and the technology is the lifeline – okay, taking a hard line on that felt cruel in a way. Now that we’re in the wake of it, now let’s recalibrate. Anecdotally, we’ve done pretty well.
Nati Rodriguez [23:20]
Yeah, it’s good to hear that the awareness has been lifted across the whole campus so, as you said, it’s not a punitive thing and everybody’s pulling in the same direction for more learning to occur and more connection really, which I think is what they want.
Rob Greenfield [23:35]
Right. I think that really hits me hard. I think it’s again, talking with colleagues – it hits colleagues hard when you walk into the class and everybody’s on their phone and not talking to each other. That, I think is a tough environment. We’re trying to get away from that and get more of those human connections we are missing.
Nati Rodriguez [23:55]
Yes. To what degree are parents involved in this conversation in your school community?
Rob Greenfield [24:00]
I tried to put together a presentation for the PTSO here, Parent Teacher Student Organization, talking with parents that I know in the community and through parent teacher conferences. They’re really, I think, at a loss in some ways. Once the phone is in their hands, now what? Now what do you do? Just like us, as teachers, we don’t want conflict. Now what? If a kid says that we’re maintaining friendship because of the phone, and now Instagram is how I communicate with my team that I’m on, and if you take away my phone, then I’m losing that connection. I’m losing that part of it.
It’s really challenging, I think, for parents to deal with this as well. Part of what we can do as a school, what I’m trying to do here, is to try to not leave it entirely on families to navigate the phone and social media use. What can we do in schools, in our school, that can increase awareness and education and maybe reduce some conflict at home.
Nati Rodriguez [25:08]
What made you want to be a teacher?
Rob Greenfield [25:10]
I started coaching basketball. I was on track for sports journalism in college, and I came back one winter to coach the freshman basketball team here at the high school and I absolutely loved it and to see kids grow and improve in that way, in athletics, it really opened the door for me to say, “okay, maybe I should just do this for a living because this is so rewarding.”
That was my entry point. I was a history major in college and always enjoyed that discipline. The combination of being able to work with kids and teach history was really attractive to me.
Nati Rodriguez [25:54]
That’s awesome. It’s great that you found that path, and now you’re impacting hundreds of students every year and having them think about these issues that we’re all going to be facing and are facing now.
Nati Rodriguez [26:23]
What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?
Rob Greenfield [26:25]
I’ve been reading a lot about AI, especially with the ChatGPT rollout situation. Thinking about artificial intelligence and asking some of the same questions about it. If we’re interacting with AI and whatever comes in the future, whether it’s this new generative AI chatbot, or whether it’s even more elementary machine learning like a Netflix or Spotify, how might it be impacting our well-being, our privacy, our politics, everything else? What are the implications here? Just doing some contextual reading on that. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil is amazing, and she’s awesome.
The Equality Machine by Orly Lobel. I really appreciated that because she talks about a future in which we can train algorithms to work for social justice. There’s a lot of – and I’m guilty of this too – where there’s a lot of identifying the problems right but not thinking about the solutions. She’s great in that book about thinking about “okay, yes, there are issues and there are problems with artificial intelligence and with technology because they increase our existing biases, and they sometimes exacerbate systemic racism, but how can we train them to make a more equal future and not just throw our hands up and say, this is terrible.”
Nati Rodriguez [28:05]
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Learner audience before we sign off today?
Rob Greenfield [28:11]
Teachers have really been through it during the pandemic in a lot of different ways, I think around here and nationally. At least for this class and for what I’m doing right now, my experience has been that kids want and need spaces to talk about smartphones and social media – how it’s impacting them, how it’s influencing them. In my opinion, there’s never enough of it. Whatever we’re doing, there’s always stuff we can do. There’s never enough and what we’re doing is – there always can be more. There’s never too much of this type of discussion or learning for kids. At least for me, kids are just dealing with a digital world and pressures that I can barely comprehend and I’m really trying. I’ve been reading in depth about this for years, and I still struggle to wrap my head around it sometimes and what they’re dealing with and the world in which they’re operating and switching out of – the digital world back to the real world and everything else. I feel like the more that adults can try to help them navigate it, the better off they’ll be.