A Look at the Future of Social Media TestDrive
How do young people engage with social media these days? As a parent, educator, or other adult figure in young people’s lives, it’s hard to keep track of what children can be doing on the Internet. Technology has evolved over the past few decades so that an increasing number of people, particularly those in younger generations, have access to the Internet and various social media sites. In fact, although the legal age limit to sign up for social media sites is 13, many children end up exposed to these sites even before they are teenagers.
This creates the need for parents and preteens to develop a feeling of trust about online activities. Since parents can’t constantly monitor what their kids are doing online, they are left with the hope that their young social media pioneers will be able to self-regulate their behaviors on social media platforms. As experiential learning theory predicts, people gain knowledge and learn from their experiences. So, if young people are able to experience and practice prosocial behaviors before they get to social media sites, they will be more likely to translate this experience into behaving accordingly online. This is where Social Media TestDrive comes into play.
Social Media TestDrive is a digital citizenship education program that combines educational content with a simulated social media site. It was created so that young people can experience social media and learn prosocial behaviors in a safe and controlled environment. TestDrive was developed by researchers in Cornell University’s Social Media Lab in collaboration with Common Sense Education.
Over the past year, I worked on my undergraduate honors thesis project, titled “A Formative Evaluation of Social Media TestDrive with Underrepresented Groups.” My research study aims to understand users’ experiences of TestDrive from the perspective of a diverse sample of young people, particularly those from underrepresented populations that we have not been able to study before.
The TestDrive research team and I recruited youth participants from two after-school programs in New York State. We visited each site twice to interview and observe a total of 24 youth participants, ranging from ages 9 to 19. The youth were primarily from families of low socioeconomic status and racial minority groups. It was important to get feedback from these youth since we predicted their social media experiences may differ from those we had interviewed in the past. For instance, many of the participants had only gotten cell phones within the past year or two, but already found themselves exposed to social media within a short time frame. Their familiarity with social media helped inform their responses in a productive way since they could draw comparisons between TestDrive and real-world social media sites.
The results of participants’ interviews were particularly useful because they helped us identify areas of potential improvement in TestDrive. The following are some key findings that we derived from the participants’ responses:
- Update the content of the timeline simulation to reflect the experiences of diverse groups of youth.
Our participants called out the need for authentic simulation content that is engaging to users of diverse personal characteristics, interests, and activities. This aligns with the current directions of TestDrive, funded by an NSF EAGER grant, on how to make learning interventions inclusive to the unique needs and characteristics of diverse learners. Making the content more relatable to users can also go a long way in increasing the effectiveness of TestDrive, since users will be more likely to pay attention and absorb the information presented if they believe the content resembles their lives.
- Build in more interactivity to engage users and also allow for the system to respond to their actions in the simulation.
The participants loved the interactive components of TestDrive, such as commenting on and liking other people’s posts. But they also told us that they wanted more of this! While TestDrive has the functionality to allow participants to create their own posts, this feature could be improved to give users experience with the full spectrum of social media’s affordances. The TestDrive team has plans to use machine learning technology to allow the bot users in TestDrive to respond to the user’s interactions. Right now, the bots have their own profiles and personalized posts with which users can interact, but no ability to interact back and forth with the users. Future iterations of the platform would ideally allow these interactions to happen reciprocally between bots and the users.
- Add more customization options, such as the ability to create detailed user profiles.
Similar to the posting functionality, users can also create their own profiles within the TestDrive system. Right now, this option is present, but not emphasized as a major component of the lessons within each module. Our participants expressed a want for even more ways to engage with and personalize the platform, such as the ability to create a detailed user profile. Since customizing user profiles could allow users to better identify with and feel more responsible for their decisions in TestDrive, we think this feature could help make the experience even more comparable to real social media sites. Giving users more options through customization also relates to the previously mentioned need to make the site more personally relevant to users.
The experience of working with these youth has been really informative and inspiring for me because it allowed me to see just how TestDrive can engage and excite them about using social media. After completing the study, I am eager to see how this future generation of social media stars will use their digital presences for good.
To learn more information about Social Media TestDrive and try out the modules, please visit the Social Media TestDrive website.