Every Click You Make: Algorithms, Social Media and You (HS lesson)

Every Click You Make: Algorithms, Social Media and You (HS lesson)

Overview and Purpose

Adapted from work by Jennifer LaGarde (@librarygirl) and Cassie White (teacher-librarian at TMMS in Olympia), the following presentation was used with high school students at a Media Literacy Symposium, at Avanti High School, Olympia, April 2023. Students learn what an algorithm is, how content that generates negative feelings tends to spread faster and further, and explore options and insights into their own social media algorithms on their phones.

This lesson and accompanying discussion can be completed in 45-60 minutes.


Washington Ed Tech Standards: Digital Citizen: Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.

WA.ET.9-12.DC.2a - Students cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and are aware of the permanence of their actions in the digital world.  

WA.ET.9-12.DC.2b - Students engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.  WA.ET.9-12.DC.2c - Students demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property.  

WA.ET.9-12.DC.2d - Students manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.

Learning Objectives

  1. Students will understand the basic definition of an algorithm and the role algorithms play in determining the content in their social media feeds

  2. Students will apply two simple algorithms to hypothetical content to show how different types of engagement can drive the spread of information

  3. Students will discuss ways in which their own algorithms may be determined by their online interests and activity

  4. Students will learn where to look in their settings to get insights into and, to some degress, manipulate their own algorithms.

Activity Procedures



5 minutes

Opener - Engage and relate to student social media use

On the white board, interactive board, or other space, list popular social media platforms, such as Snap, IG, YouTube, Discord, Facebook, and others.Invite students to mark which apps they use regularly. The group can decide through discussion what “use regularly” will mean in this context.Make observations about the data and trends in usage.

10 minutes

Small group discussions - depending on size of class and level of engagement, either assign each group all three questions or jigsaw the discussionReport out highlights

What different types of emotions/reactions have you experienced on these platforms?Do you think content creators intentionally design for these emotions/reactions? Why or why not?What are the specific actions that we take on social media platforms? [Prompt group with idea that actions might be liking, sharing, commenting, etc.]

2 minutes

Define algorithms in the context of social media

Algorithms are a set of instructions, like a recipe. Social media companies do not disclose the exact algorithms they use - they are their trade secrets.

4 minutes

PBS Above the Noise, “Is the Internet Expanding Your Mind?”

Show video from beginning to 4:22

5 minutes

Small group discussions and share out

  1. 5-word definition of algorithm
  2. How does engagement with content affect the algorithm?
  3. What do you think your algorithm says about you?

10 minutes

How do different types of engagement affect the spread of information?

Students go to one side of the room or the other to indicate which post they think would spread more widely (slide 7)With scratch paper, students apply the algorithm to each post to determine which would be more popular.

5 minutes

Enragement → Engagement

Discuss the findings that content that arouses strong emotion spreads faster and further. Why would this be?Share with students the top eight emotions that content creators incorporate to encourage sharing/engagement. What is missing from the list? Why?

10 minutes

Is the internet expanding your mind or limiting it?PBS Above the Noise, “Is the Internet Expanding Your Mind?”

Ask students to create a t-chart on paper. One side is evidence that the internet is expanding your mind. The other side is evidence that it is limiting your mind. Evidence can come from the video with time to supplement with personal experience (Alternatively, use Sketch and Tell Eduprotocol)Show rest of video. Allow students to add notes and discuss with a partner.

3 minutes

How to take back control

Share strategies for identifying and manipulating your social media algorithm

10 minutes

Where to get clues to your algorithms

Share slides 15-18 or handout. Guide students to look for settings, privacy, and ad preferences in their favorite apps. Allow time to explore.

5 minutes

Share findings

Encourage students to share a tip that they discovered or an insight that they gained. 


Use Eduprotocol Thin Slides in pairs or small groups. How is your social media feed shaped by algorithms? One word, one image, five minutes to create, one minute to share.