Bill requiring social media literacy lessons in public school advances

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A bill requiring Florida public schools to include lessons on social media literacy alongside other mandatory curricula cleared the Senate Committee on Education on Tuesday with uniform, bipartisan support.

SB 480, sponsored by Republican Sen. Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills, would obligate public schools to teach students about social media, its benefits and dangers through instruction and rules the Department of Education develops.

If the bill passes and is signed into law by the Governor, local school boards would have to design social media literacy lesson plans in accordance with state standards, make the related instructional materials available online and notify parents of their availability. Those requirements would kick in starting July 1, 2022.

The lessons would be compulsory, like those for African American history, the elements of civil government, the history of the Holocaust and the effects of alcohol and intoxicating liquors, beverages and narcotics, among many other subjects.

“At the end of the day, there’s no turning back the clock,” Burgess said. “This bill is intended to empower not just parents by providing this material but also making sure our children are aware of the long-lasting risks that are inherent with having essentially the world at your fingertips.”

The bill — which would provide Florida with its first legal definition of social media — would have no impact on state revenues or expenditures, though it may fiscally impact school districts, according to Kendra Jahnke, the committee’s chief legislative analyst.

“Social media plays an integral role in today’s culture,” she wrote in her analysis of the bill, citing surveys from 2018 and 2021 showing that 90% of teens 13 to 17 reported having used social media. Those surveys also showed 75% of teens had at least one active social media profile by age 17 and more than 67% had their own mobile devices with internet capabilities.

The potential benefits social media provides, Jahnke wrote, include staying connected to friends, meeting new friends with shared interests, finding community and support for activities, sharing artwork or music, self-expression and self-exploration.

Among the potential risks: exposure to harmful or inappropriate content, exposure to dangerous people, cyberbullying, oversharing personal information, exposure to excessive advertisements, privacy concerns such as the collection of data about teen users, identity theft, being hacked and interference with sleep, exercise, homework or family activities.

“Requiring instruction on social media literacy could provide students with a better understanding of the benefits and risks of communicating and sharing information on social media platforms,” Jahnke wrote.

If the bill is enacted, social media would be defined in state statutes as “a form of interactive electronic communication through an Internet website or application by which a user creates a service-specific identifying user profile to connect with other users of the Internet website or application for the purpose of communicating and sharing information, ideas, news, stories, opinions, images, and other content.”

Burgess said he kept the language of the bill otherwise loose to allow the DOE and school districts to fine-tune curricula as they deem necessary. The lessons themselves would be “incorporated in an appropriate class,” he said, “as opposed to creating a whole new class with a whole new teacher that would need to be completely dedicate 100% of the time to this, because we know (teachers are) pulled in 100 million directions.”

Florida PTA Legislative Chair Karen Mazzola and Heidi Daniels of the Florida Citizens Alliance and Defend Florida appeared at the meeting to show support for the bill.

Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones, the committee vice chair, called Burgess’ item “a good bill.” Noting troublesome social media trends like the TikTok “slap a teacher” challenge, Jones asked whether the curriculum contemplated would be general or specific to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Discord, Twitch and Omegle.

Burgess said he hopes the lessons address everything, which is why local input is vital.

“It’s hard for me to talk to my kids who are coming up in age about these risks, so I think having this education set not just in statute but at the school level will make sure that it captures all students of all ages in all areas and has that uniform approach to a problem that is cultural and societal,” he said. “The things that our kids are exposed to are troubling. Kids are losing their innocence more and more every day, earlier, because of the things you can just see by pulling something up online, even if they’re not looking for it. That’s what this is about.”

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at Jesse@FloridaPolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

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