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UCLA SEIS Enters Partnership with the Organization for Social Media Safety

By Joanie Harmon
This spring, Wasserman Dean Christina Christie signed a MOU that partners UCLA SEIS with the Organization for Social Media Safety (OFSMS). Pictured with Marc Berkman, the organization's CEO. Photo by Mitsue Yokota

Collaboration will produce vital research to inform and protect users of social media, particularly K-12 students.

The UCLA School of Education and Information Studies has entered into a research partnership with the Organization for Social Media Safety (OFSMS), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting consumers, especially K-12 students, from social media-related dangers, including cyberbullying, hate speech, human trafficking, and self-harm. This spring, Wasserman Dean Christina Christie signed a MOU for the partnership with Marc Berkman, the organization’s CEO.   

"We are very much looking forward to working together with OFSMS on issues of singular importance surrounding digital media safety,” says Dean Christie. “Our partnership with OFSMS is significant on several fronts. It will enable us to undertake much-needed research on how social media, and the digital platform in general, affects children and young adults. 

“Though the digital platform is pervasive in the contemporary world, we know very little about its actual impact on children. The partnership will help fill this dire gap in scholarship. This scholarship will, in turn, help us develop more effective curricula for our schools to help our children and young adults cope better in the digital environment.” 

Berkman says that as the first and only consumer protection organization focused exclusively on social media, OFSMS relies on evidence to inform its programming, which includes education, advocacy, and technology development. He says that the partnership with UCLA SEIS reflects an intersection of his organization’s aims and the University’s commitment to public service.

“This work significantly advances the public interest by adding to the world’s understanding of social media safety through top-notch research,” says Berkman. “Our partnership with SEIS represents a fortuitous alignment of organizational interests, since social media is demonstrably impacting K-12 students.”

Mitsue Yokota, academic director of undergraduate programs at SEIS, says that the partnership with OFSMS will provide opportunities for SEIS students to work with researchers at the School of Education and Information Studies and its affiliates.

"With the new partnership, OFSMS is committed to conducting studies that will help fill the holes in the existing literature and find links between social media usage and various outcomes," says Yokota. "I think this is a particularly exciting development for the students in our undergraduate program as we’ve discussed ways in which they might collaborate with researchers in the school to help support data collection and analysis efforts. Furthermore, for any of our students pursuing a career in teaching, it would help inform them of ways that they can keep their future students safer while utilizing various social media platforms. I think this is a much needed partnership and excited to see the potential research projects that are launched."

Berkman says that by producing “urgently needed scholarship” in the field of social media safety, the partnership will have local, national, and even international impact. Leveraging its existing infrastructure, OFSMS can put the lessons learned through the partnership into immediate use in classrooms, legislatures, and technology companies.

“There are a number of questions that we simply do not have the answer to, that are really basic, fundamental questions,” notes Berkman. “How long should a child be using social media for? Do school phone and social media policies impact educational achievement? Do they impact the risk of or susceptibility to other dangers?

“UCLA SEIS will design research to provide reliable, practical answers to these lingering unknowns. The Organization for Social Media Safety is going to be able to use our existing operations in K -12 schools across the country to conduct this research in a way that hasn't been done before.”

The Organization for Social Media Safety was established in 2016, when Jordan Peisner - who was then 14 years old -  was suddenly and viciously assaulted by another teen he did not know, outside a fast food restaurant. During and after the attack, witnesses and friends of the perpetrator filmed the assault on their phones and then quickly uploaded their videos to social media. 

While Jordan slowly recovered from his severe and ultimately lifelong injuries, his father Ed Peisner resolved that no other child or family should endure such an ordeal. He began meeting with local legislators to explore solutions, and eventually partnered with Berkman, a senior staffer with the California State Assembly. Together, they learned that incidents of what is now called social media-motivated violence, attacks committed for the purpose of filming and sharing on social media, had doubled every year since 2006. To stop this trend, Berkman ultimately drafted Jordan’s Law, the nation’s first state law to deter social media-motivated violence. 

With Peisner’s fierce advocacy, Jordan’s Law was signed into law in California within only a year of its introduction. In the process of advocating for Jordan’s Law, Peisner and Berkman had immersed themselves in the world of social media. Their newfound and painful awareness of the long and rapidly expanding list of social media-related dangers, like cyberbullying, hate speech, sexual harassment, and propaganda inspired them to create the Organization for Social Media Safety. The work of OFSMS has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and NBC News. The organization has been selected by the State of California as the 2022 Nonprofit of the Year.   

“One of the things about our origin story and social media-motivated violence is that a lot of people haven't considered it,” says Berkman. “Yet when we teach about it or when Ed shares his story, they immediately know what it is. They immediately know that they've seen it - there just wasn't the language for it. By being able to point to credible research and specific cases, we can raise awareness of what the specific dangers are that families are facing on social media.” 

OFSMS’ educational programming consists of presentations for students, workshops for parents, and social media safety consulting for schools, as well as foster youth programs, family consultations, and corporate presentations.  OFSMS’ extensive experience in K-12 schools will inform programs at SEIS’s community schools, Mann UCLA Community School and UCLA Community School RFK, in the area of social media safety and information and media literacy more broadly. 

Arif Amlani, SEIS director of new initiatives, points out that the partnership is not designed to vilify social media or the use of it. He cites the work of UCLA colleague Jeff Share, faculty lecturer in SEIS and co-author of “The Critical Media Literacy Guide – Engaging Media and Transforming Education.”

“Jeff puts it very nicely: the digital platform with all its capabilities is fundamentally a tool, and you can use it for the betterment of humanity or abuse it to the detriment of humanity,” says Amlani. “Now, what are its noble uses? What are its nefarious uses? We’ve seen the enormous potential of the digital platform for human betterment, but we haven't really looked very deeply at its misuse and its negative effects. Those are things that we’d like to study. The scholarly community has just scratched the surface on researching these issues.

Berkman hopes that the collaborative research undertaken by SEIS and OFSMS will support his organization’s three-pronged approach to social media safety by providing evidence-based answers to the many unanswered questions that educators and families may have.

“The range of social media- related dangers that we work on leaves no one untouched, from misinformation and disinformation, to the issues that are impacting students across the world: cyberbullying, the mental health impacts, and the potential educational impacts,” says Berkman. As a foundational matter, we consider social media safety to be a high priority issue for the public.”