What Can We Learn about Black Girls’ Use of Social Media for In-School Learning?
Dec. 14, 2022
With a growing interest in the educational space focused on designing accessible and inclusive digital learning opportunities through materials and digital public infrastructure, developers, educators, and researchers need to understand the experiences of those students who are most deprived of equitable outcomes in education. According to the 2019 Nation’s Report Card, Black girls score the lowest in literacy and technology proficiency out of their gender peer group in the United States. Insights from the 2019 Nation’s Report Card reading score results prompted a roundtable convening with researchers, teachers, and adolescent Black girls to examine connections between Black girl literacies, social media, and education.
This fall, New America convened a small group of researchers, teachers, and adolescent Black girls to explore Black girls’ use of informal literacy practices on social media and the implications of this use for in-school learning. The first in a two-part series, this convening highlighted the challenges and advantages of social media among Black girls and identified tangible skills that are acquired through its use.
Participants for the roundtable included media literacy experts, scholars of Black girl literacies, Black feminist scholars, middle and high school STEM and English language arts (ELA) teachers, and Black girls between the ages 13 and 18. The diversity of the participants allowed for insight from multiple perspectives. Participants had the opportunity to discuss Black girl literacy concepts and the type of literacy practices teens utilize on social media apps. Following the discussion, each breakout group was charged with designing an open social media platform that could be integrated into schools for learning.
Defining Black Girl Literacies (BGL)
The roundtable opened with defining and conceptualizing the term “Black girl literacies.” The term was coined by researchers Gholnecsar E. Muhammad and Marcelle Haddix, and put forward alongside a conceptual framework they developed in the journal English Education. Their research yielded six central themes and concepts known as the Black Girl Literacies (BGL) framework from reviewing over three decades of literature focused on Black girls' literacy practices. Each concept centers Black girls in the context of literacy with reading, writing, discussing, and performing.
The BGL framework describes practices that are:
- Multiple in practice, incorporating the use of multimodal text for learning;
- Tied to identities, attaching elements of socio-cultural literacy with language and identity into practice;
- Historical, making connections with past and present uses of literacy;
- Collaborative, creating opportunities for collaboration, communication, and engagement;
- Intellectual, educating and enhancing proficiency as well as achievement; and
- Political and critical, allowing space for students to analyze, advocate, and civically engage on issues that impact them and their community.
Connection of BGL to Culturally Responsive Education
After discussing the term “Black girl literacies,” participants reflected on its connection with culturally responsive education (CRE). According to a 2002 article published by Geneva Gay in the Journal of Teacher Education, CRE involves centering the experiences and knowledge of historically marginalized students in classroom instruction. One participant expressed how CRE creates inclusive agency of cultures with Black girls through youth voice and participation. This participant felt that it was a practical approach for building cultural understanding between diverse groups, which leads to creating a more inclusive school community. Another participant, a STEM teacher for the middle grades, said CRE allowed him to establish cross-cultural experiences from across different subject areas with his BIPOC students and other teachers to build community in his school. The STEM teacher said that he began to ask himself, “What can I do as a science teacher that aligns with the ELA class, to better support my students holistically while collaborating with other teachers?” Other participants shared how culturally responsive learning environments embrace students’ needs and foster a community of inclusion. One participant said that in order for a community of inclusion to be established, collaboration is key and at the heart of BGL.
In addition to collaboration, participants said that celebrating identities was another connection between BGL and CRE. They said CRE provided the opportunity for students and teachers to learn from others about their culture. The teachers all shared the same sentiment: Their classroom engagement should reflect who they teach as much as what they teach. Participants pointed out that CRE and BGL both incorporate students’ languages, backgrounds, and experiences, which are all tied to their identities. “Students need to know that their backgrounds are accepted and acknowledged in the classroom,” said one teacher. For that reason, she ensures that everyone in her class is represented in discussions and materials. “CRE is not critical race theory,” asserted another teacher, “but it is important to practice CRE and integrate BGL to better understand and support each of your students.”
Black Girl Literacies and Social Media
The accessibility of social media through smartphone devices enables a level of efficiency for communication with family, friends, and a perceived audience that was unfathomable a decade ago. One participant pointed out that Black adolescent girls today are digital natives, connected to the online world since birth.
When asked when they first had a social media account, all four teen participants indicated they were between the ages of 10 and 12, even though social media apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok have an age requirement of 13 and older. Although these age restrictions exist to protect children, these teens joined social media platforms as early as elementary school by creatively constructing accounts with altered ages. Each of the participants acknowledged that their reason for joining social media was because friends were on the app. Some of the teen participants explained that they had gained parental permission to create a social media account through persuasive measures such as writing an essay or giving a PowerPoint presentation. Instagram and TikTok were the most popular platforms among the teen participants, and with the use of these apps multiple times a day.
Participants were asked to identify some of the challenges for Black girls on social media platforms. One researcher spotlighted the September 2021 revelations of Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower. The Wall Street Journal began investigating a story on the “Facebook Files” leaked by the former Facebook employee. Findings included the fact that the platform was aware of the detrimental effects it had on youth, and the fact that Instagram was extremely harmful to adolescent girls. For example, one out of three girls were impacted by body image issues as a result of social comparison on Instagram. The report also highlighted how algorithms on the platform pushed negative content, such as anorexia posts and self-harm photos, to adolescent girls.
“Algorithms on social media sites feed negative information to children and can be catastrophic for mental health,” one roundtable participant said. Research from Safiya Umoja Noble’s 2018 book, Algorithms of Oppression, similarly indicates how negative and hypersexual imagery is aggregated when just searching the keywords “Black girls” online. Participants also shared how imagery from accounts of police brutality on social media has triggered trauma by sensationalizing the killings of Black and brown people. One panelist said, “While this information is mainly for awareness and protest, it is also harmful to Black children’s mental health.”
While there are challenges with social media that have created a negative fixation with educators on its use with students in school, there are many positive aspects of the space that can be gleaned from use by Black girls. Social media has been utilized in literacy practices with Black girls for self-expression, social justice, and achievement promotion. Researcher participants asserted that Black girls use social media for identity representation outside of school and to resist the influence of racism and sexism. One researcher reflected on the fact that social media provided her with a way to watch a speech from Black actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who won an Emmy Award for her performance in the hit TV show, Abbott Elementary.
“Representation matters, and social media provides this opportunity,” the researcher exclaimed. Participants said that access to representation is one major advantage of social media, and it also allows for Black girls to have the agency to represent themselves in the way they desire to the world.
Along with being deemed a culturally affirming space for Black girls, self-empowerment and social justice were also heavily discussed as advantages. A researcher said that social media has given Black girls the ability to disrupt negative discourse that has been historically received about their identities. “It’s a place to tell stories,” she stated. Constructing new narratives about Black girlhood through stories and imagery created by Black girls themselves is one of the benefits of social media and literacy as a practice in the space.
Panelists shared how #hashtag culture has played a tremendous role in shifting the narrative of Black girls’ representation and existence. For instance, as a result of police brutality and victimization experienced by Black girls that have been marginalized compared to the accounts of Black boys, the twitter hashtag #SayHerName was created in 2014 by four Black girl activists. #SayHerName exemplifies how social media has created a literacy practice that supports advocacy among Black girls by exalting their voices. Moreover, a growing body of research on social media movements and hashtag advocacy, such as #BlackGirlMagic, has shown how social media has reframed the perception of Black girl identity among Black girls themselves by celebrating their talents and successes.
Social Media as a Tool for Learning
Participants discussed how social media may provide learning opportunities when strategically included in curricula. As a platform for news, entertainment, information, and communication, social media’s popularity with Black girls also confers opportunities that may translate into literacy education and language instruction.
One participant said that “social media provides a platform that classrooms don’t consider as positive, but it’s a part of youth culture so it can’t be ignored.” A teen participant said that classes where teachers incorporated social media in their instruction were more engaging. Applying a critical lens to social media has been shown to develop student agency and improve problem-solving skills. Participants discussed skills that Black girls were learning on social media and their implications for formal education.
Skills Acquired in Social Media Spaces
According to the National Council of Teachers of English, alphanumeric print is no longer able to serve solely as the key focus for literacy composition in a modern era. Many researchers believe that monomodal literacy practices in ELA classrooms are not enough to educate digital native youth who practice daily multimodal forms of communication through selfie pics, TikTok videos, and filtered Snapchats. Connecting digital literacies and multimodality situates literacy as not only an academic skill or tool but a way of life. According to one researcher, analysis and synthesis of media messaging are skills Black girls are utilizing in real time while on social media, similar to what her doctoral students are doing, especially with content creation:
“Black girls are curating content from a lot of different sources and distilling information to an audience of their choice. They are understanding audience targeting, and how to build fluency across platforms, software, and apps. Additionally, they are learning how to understand the elements of mood and tone, which are key skills for comprehension in ELA.”
Teen participants corroborated this observation, by sharing the different ways in which they were engaging in skill building while interacting with social media platforms. One teen said that she uses her Instagram account to seek out inspiration from other content creators as a foundation to support her as an artist. Social media afforded another teen the opportunity to learn networking skills and connect with professionals. She said, “I am an aspiring filmmaker and actress, so Instagram has opened up opportunities for me to meet people, find resources, and discover programs like the Black Girls Film Camp.” Teens also shared how they were able to build practical skills through watching video tutorials and Instagram reels on how to repair a device or try a new hairstyle.
Implications for Education
Participants talked about how social media use in traditional classrooms could build community with Black girls and their peers through online engagement and support networks. Further discussion on how giving students agency in identity and narrative construction was shared for enabling Black girls to reimagine themselves in educational content. Digital literacy spaces that are liberating for Black girls should connect literacy practices to course material and topics that students are passionate about while using multimodality, and they should create a space for critical thinking, collaboration, or cultural exposure tied to identity.
Teacher participants shared how they have used social media in learning with students. TikTok was the most popular platform. One teacher said that he used TikTok as a platform to allow students to give presentations on various topics, and he felt it was a great way to assess student learning. Another teacher said that she used TikTok for empowerment with her Latina and Black female students to create videos during Women's History Month and to encourage academic achievement before the end of grade testing. An ELA teacher said that she uses a similar format as a Twitter feed with students in her classroom for summarizing various nonfiction texts.
Research participants closed out the conversation with probing questions for the large group to consider beyond the roundtable: “What does learning with social media look like when preparing teachers? And how can teachers be prepared to understand what Black girls are bringing to the classroom to support the use of digital tools for their learning?”
Recommendations for Social Media Use in Schools
Participants were charged with designing an open social media platform that could be integrated into schools for learning. Each breakout group consisted of a teen, teacher, and researcher tasked with building a new open social media app for in-school use. Each group recognized that social media apps for learning would need to have features for collaboration, agency, and safety.
Recommended features include:
- Collaborative sub-spaces: Social interaction was extremely important to teen participants, with the ability to send direct messages to classmates. One teen said, “I want to be able to connect with friends and other people. The social aspect is necessary if it is a social media platform.” Networking features, such as those found on LinkedIn, that spotlight connections with students’ interests in subject and learning topics were suggested, as were affinity spaces like interest groups or online meet-ups similar to apps like Clubhouse for tutoring or school clubs.
- Safety protocols and management for teachers: Teachers were very concerned with the safety of students and whether cyberbullying would increase with the integration of social media in schools. Access to removal buttons, for students and staff, for content that may negatively influence the self-image or self-esteem of girls were offered as solutions by the group. Their recommendations included putting protocols in place to ensure the security of users’ data, making it accessible only to teachers and administrators. One teen participant proposed that platforms could require the use of a school email address and student account information to sign up. Participants agreed that this could also determine the level of access and permissions granted to the user on the platform and help with identifying misuse of the app by specific students. Participants also felt that algorithms could be used in positive ways to make reading recommendations for students based on their interests and to make connections to culturally relevant content for learning based on students’ profiles.
- Accessibility and multimodal text features: The ability to upload, repost, and share reels, videos, and photographs that can better engage diverse learners were additional features suggested. Accessibility to translation tools in different languages for content was considered important. Teachers said that they would like the ability to post videos directly to individual students or a group of learners and have students respond and form video threads. Live learning sessions with community members and professionals that resemble master classes or the Clubhouse app, where students can continue learning outside of school and could support family engagement, were proposed.
- Student agency: Teen participants and researchers highly recommended that features on a platform be vibrant in presentation and include editing tools and filters. Students should feel empowered to make changes as they felt necessary to any posts in learning communities, whether that meant deleting images and/or text or adding comments. Having the ability to construct their own profile pages that represented their identities as learners was also essential for teens.
- Culturally responsive and affirming tools: Searchable tabs and filters that represented various identities (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) linked to content was another suggestion made by the participants. Affirmative features to empower students and build confidence in education was deemed important. Example features that already exist and could be incorporated into platform design are reaction emojis such as the hand clap or thumbs-up symbols.
Findings from this roundtable on Black girls, social media, and education captured the strengths of social media as a tool for skill-building, exposure to creative resources and avenues for growth, and fostering engagement. Challenges that exist in social media spaces, with algorithms and violent imagery, were discussed as areas of concern for inflicting trauma and causing a negative influence on mental health. In general, conversations around the table showed benefits for Black girls—giving them agency, affirming their identity, and more—that are worth exploring. Moreover, the need to explore solutions that address the shortcomings of social media use in education was highlighted as a means to more equitable digital learning outcomes. Meeting Black girls where they are and learning from them is an important way for educational stakeholders to help them reach their full potential in literacy and create digital inclusion for all.
Special thanks to roundtable participants Dr. Detra Price-Dennis, Dr. Sherell McArthur, Dr. Tisha Lewis Ellison, Dr. Deneen Dixon-Payne, Dr. Belinha De Abreu, Dr. Chanel Craft Tanner, Keith Burgess, Dr. Taryn Brown, Shantelle Jacobs, Camille Satterwhite-Rambert, Sydney White, Madison Proctor, Precious Foreman, Dr. Michelle Meggs, Candace Richardson, and Dr. Kim Moffitt.
 National Center for Education Statistics, "The Nation’s Report Card," (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2019).
 Gholnecsar E. Muhammad and Marcelle Haddix, "Centering Black Girls' Literacies: A Review of Literature on the Multiple Ways of Knowing of Black Girls," English Education 48, no. 4 (2016): 299–336, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26492572.
 Geneva Gay, "Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching," Journal of Teacher Education, 53, no. 2 (2002), 106–116.
 Detra Price-Dennis, "Developing Curriculum to Support Black Girls' Literacies in Digital Spaces," English Education, 48, no. 4 (2016), 337–361, https://www.proquest.com/docview/1808334523.
 Sherell A. McArthur, "Black Girls and Critical Media Literacy for Social Activism," English Education 48, no. 4 (2016): 362–379, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26492574.
 Anjali S. Bal, Dhruv Grewal, Adam Mills, and Gary Ottley, "Engaging Students with Social Media," Journal of Marketing Education 37, no. 3 (2015): 190–203.
 Belinha S. De Abreu, "Mobile Technologies: Changing the Face of Education from Social Networking to E-Learning," In Promoting Active Learning through the Integration of Mobile and Ubiquitous Technologies, (IGI Global, 2015), 213–222.