Developing Social Media Literacies in Pre-Teens


Social media provides young people with many opportunities, such as experimenting with their identities, expanding their socialities and developing new skills and prospects for the future. Young people’s social media practices are shaped by the sociocultural context in which they are enacted, meaning that this is far from a homogenous group (Helsper & Eynon, 2010). While pre-teen use of the internet has grown in the past decade, it is likely that many pre-teens have made little or no use of social media – especially as the large platforms have a minimum user age of 13 years. Despite this, in regard to digital media children are often described as 'youthful experts' or 'pioneers' (Livingstone, 2009). 

While social media use can be beneficial, participating on these platforms introduces new issues for all users to contend with. We identify three issues associated with social media use that are particularly challenging for pre-teens: constructing digital identities for the present and the future; managing privacy in networked contexts; and understanding the implications of personal data generation. As the most inexperienced users of social media, pre-teens require support to ensure that they might benefit from connectivity, without implications for their future or risking their digital rights. 

 Two recent reports provide justification for the goals of this project. The 2017 UNESCO Report ‘Digital skills for life and work’ outlines the need to develop critical digital literacies in citizens, in particular the ability ‘to analyse the political features of digital technology and manipulate these to achieve particular outcomes’ (UNESCO, 2017, p.32). While the European Commission’s ‘Me, my data and I: The future of the personal data economy’ argues that we ‘urgently need to reconsider the way personal data is used in the digital economy’. Specifically, citizens need to develop the literacies that will help them to gain ‘control of their personal data’ (European Commission, 2017, p.7). Both reports highlight the need for individuals to develop digital literacies that can help them recognize the motivations of actors in the digital spaces, and develop awareness of alternative ways of generating and using digital data. This project provides an educational response to the concerns raised by these reports through an innovative approach to developing social media literacies. 

This study explores the social media practices of 276 preadolescents between 8 and 12 years old in Australia and Uruguay. Despite the obvious contextual differences between the two countries, the findings highlight how active and committed pre-teens are to digital technologies and the use of social media. The results of this study guide new approaches to digital literacy that respond to the emerging challenges facing pre-teens. It underscores the need for digital education to move beyond cybersafety to formulate new ways of supporting children and young people to address these complex and emerging challenges.


The Data Smart Kids program was developed in collaboration with students and teachers at participating schools through a participatory design process. This began in 2018, when the research team worked with two groups of students (one group in Uruguay and one in Australia) to name and design an educational chat app with the goal of developing data literacies in pre-teens. 

In September 2018 the app, FriendSend, was trialled by two classes of students (n=47) and their teacher. Also trialled was a series of workshop activities to accompany the app and develop student’s understandings of personal data. At the conclusion, FriendSend was refined and issues noted by the students’ were addressed by the software developers, Hitori Inc. Workshop materials were modified by the research team in response to classroom observations and teacher suggestions.


The three workshops consisted of four to five activities and were based around three main topics:

  • Workshop 1: Social media + constructing digital identities

  • Workshop 2: What is personal data?

  • Workshop 3: Managing and protecting personal data


The project involved a total of 276 4th, 5th, and 6th (8-12) grade students from Australia and Uruguay. Students were selected taking into account socioeconomic and geographic diversity, with a representativeness of urban and suburban areas.

Data collection

The data collection process was replicated in both countries, involving 3 workshops lasting between 90 and 120 minutes based on the social media application (FriendSend) that was designed for the purposes of the project. As stated above each workshop was preceded by visits to educational centers, meetings with the management team, and with teachers.

 A Qualtrics survey was conducted before and after the workshops. The first survey explored the pre-teens’ social media practices and understandings of social media data before the workshops; while the final survey identified the practices and understandings that have emerged after the project. The final Qualtrics survey also provided some feedback on the app and the workshops. All participants completed the workshops and the Qualtrics surveys. In addition, a sub-sample of 24 young people were involved in focus group discussions at the conclusion of the three workshops to provide more detailed feedback on the ideas and content covered.


  • Pre and post questionnaires

  • Focal interviews

  • Ethnographic observation

Key Findings

After analysing the data from  Uruguayan and Australian contexts the findings of this research highlight how developed the digital practices of preadolescents are. This analysis leads us to conclude that:

Pre-teens in both countries are already using a variety of social media platforms 

Pre-teens are not well supported to manage privacy in online contexts.

Pre-teens have a limited understanding of the implications of generating personal data.

The development of resources that combine the digital with the curricular is an under-explored area in the educational systems of both participating countries.

Pre-teens require sophisticated and sustained digital literacies to negotiate their identities online.

As our findings reveal, not only do the pre-teens in our study make use of digital devices at home, but they are also encouraged to use mobile devices, laptops and tablets at school. Not only do they make use of digital devices at home, but they are also encouraged to use mobile devices, laptops and tablets at school. For example, in Australia, all students in participating schools are expected to have an iPad starting at age nine. In Uruguay, public school students receive a device, be it a laptop or a tablet. 

While digital devices are often introduced for educational purposes, survey and interview results indicate that pre-teens are starting to use these devices early for entertainment. Many of the pre-teens in our study reported having accounts on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. In order to create these accounts, you must be at least 13 years old, since this is the age at which technology companies can collect personal data from users without parental consent. However, YouTube, the most popular social media platform used by participants in Australia and Uruguay, has a minimum registration age of 18 years, unless the child has registered with the knowledge and consent of the parents. Our findings highlight that many pre-teens were often unaware of being online sharing their personal data, which has implications for the protection and management of their privacy.

A growing area of ​​concern is the reuse of personal data resulting from the use of social media. In social networks, the owners of the platform have the power to add and distribute the information that users share with the site, which means that they unknowingly share control of their personal data. In fact, it is paradoxical that at the same time that young people experience the freedom of online communication, they compromise the control of their personal data. Once processed by particular algorithms, personal data can produce meaning that defines children. Furthermore, personal data is not only generated through the use of social networks, but is generated involuntarily through the daily activities of children, which could have specific implications for this generation (cf. Lupton and Williamson, 2017). This was evident in our data, which indicates that pre-teens do not identify that they were generating personal data without knowing it. Even the data that they do identify as personal generally responds to the record of the concrete, for example, the home address or telephone number. Other less specific personal data, such as gender, email address or purchase preferences, etc., are not perceived as data by the majority of participating pre-teens.


European Commission, E. (2017). Me, my data and I: The future of the personal data economy. Retrieved from


Helsper, E., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives Where is the evidence British Educational Research Journal, 36, 503-520. doi10.1080/01411920902989227.


Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the Internet: Great Expectations, Challenging Realities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.


Lupton, D., & Williamson, B. (2017). The datafied child: The dataveillance of children and implications for their rights. New Media & Society, 19(5), 780-794.


UNESCO. (2017) Digital skills for life and work. Broadband Commission for Sustainable Government.

Using social media is now an important life skill. This project designed and built a social media app that can be used on a range of digital devices to develop the personal data literacies of school children who have not yet begun to make use of social media. Working with groups of ‘pre-teens’ (8-12 years) in Australia and Uruguay, this comparative study generated detailed insight into the ways that students are able to engage with and understand social media and personal data.  The project resulted in the development of a set of Spanish and English language open educational resources, including the ‘FriendSend’ app, which can be used by teachers and families to improve social media literacies in young people. The development of the educational resources took account the perceptions and opinions of the participating teachers. In particular, the app had an accompanying web application that aggregated the personal data generated through the app to show how user profiling and prediction can be used for commercial purposes.