What are Social Media Algorithms and How Do They Impact My Life?

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

“The content you see on a given social media app isn’t random – it’s curated content specifically made for you. And it is curated by recommendation algorithms. These algorithms are designed to keep you on the social media app you are using for as long as possible and they do that by learning what you like and showing you more of that type of content.”
-PBS Learning Media, 2024

It is more important than ever before that people in today’s society are media savvy and have good media literacy skills, especially teachers and students. An important concept to understand in today’s Internet world is the impact of social media algorithms. Many people do not realize the level that they are being influenced by social media and the degree that their habits and influences are being tracked. The social media management site Sprout Social defines algorithms as “rules, signals and data that govern the platform’s operation.” They go on to say that “these algorithms determine how content is filtered, ranked, selected and recommended to users…algorithms influence our choices and what we see on social media.” Furthermore, The Institute for the Internet and the Just Society states that social media algorithms “influence the spread of culture and information in the digital society.” Taking the conversation a bit deeper the site offers this discussion of social media algorithms. Defining it as: 

“as technical means of sorting posts based on relevancy instead of publish time, in order to prioritize which content a user sees first according to the likelihood that they will actually engage with such content. For example, the posts which are recommended to you when you scroll through your Instagram feed, or the stories of your friends that appear first on the dashboard, are determined by algorithms. Algorithms can be written by coders who make use of machine learning. “Machine learning” means that algorithms “learn” how to carry out tasks under various levels of human oversight. Algorithms manage several tasks which would be tedious for humans to carry out, such as managing flows of content through active recommendations as well as negative shadow bans and mediating interaction with information through likes and comments to improve content discoverability. In addition, algorithms rank and filter information in ways that create incentives and conditions of interaction for content creators that are similar to markets.”


This comic, illustrated by Vreni Stollberger, is inspired by TED Radio Hour’s
episode Warped Reality.

PBS Learning Media offers tools to help students become more media literate by understanding these algorithms. In a recent post on their site, PBS Learning states “Social media content is not random – It’s curated for you by recommendation algorithms that are designed to keep you on the app for as long as possible. But is this a good thing?” Did you catch that? Algorithms are designed to keep us on the site as long as possible. This is definitely something we need to be aware of. This way people can be more responsible Internet users. You can click on the resource entitled How Much Do Social Media Algorithms Control You? to learn more about how all social media users are impacted by algorithms. We have also included more resources below for teachers, students and the general public to learn more.

Other Resources for Teaching and Learning about Social Media Algorithms
How Social Media Algorithms Create Echo Chambers
Mini-Lesson Plan: Websites and Social Media Algorithms -I-Civics
Social Media and Algorithms- Harvard University
Do Algorithms Influence Our Lives and Our Democracy?
Algorithms, Social Media and You (HS lesson)
For You: The Algorithm Game Lesson Plan
The Invisible Machine: Big Data and You – Equality Project

6 Comments

  1. ecause social media has such a big impact on our every day life in way that we don’t even know, and one of the ways that we are addicted to our phones is because of the algorithm and how it keeps us interested. I liked how the article talked about us being tracked by our phones, also the spread of new/information no matter what is true and what is not true the information spreads and people believe it. Also it talked about algorithms and really at all times your phone is listening to you so when you talk about something and then the next day it pops up on your phone that’s why.

  2. Media literacy is necessary and extremely important in our society of advanced technology. Learning to question and research further is key to that. So much of our media is curated to the things we like, what we interact with, and what we don’t care to see. This is harmful and creates significant bias. We cannot truly see the world around us through media if we only see a small curated part of it. Not only does it create bias in the algorithm, it creates bias in the person. Without the media literacy to question what they are seeing in media, they take that as fact. Young children are exposed to these algorithms and have no knowledge or skills to decipher the content they are ingesting. Through the curated media, it pulls them in to stay on the particular app for much longer than needed. The prolonged stay on social media can hinder our curiosity and stunt our growth. It’s necessary to be bored to be curious and creative, and social media grants us instant gratification that hinders that growth. Putting limits on social media and algorithms would be beneficial, along with requiring media literacy courses from K-12, colleges, and workplaces.

  3. Social media algorithms are becoming increasingly proficient and dangerous everyday. They cater the content we view specifically to us. These programs are so adept at doing this that we all end up living in echo chambers online. We don’t see outside of the comfortable boxes the algorithms place us in. The algorithm is also incredibly adept at spreading harmful misinformation and rhetoric. If it’s popular the algorithm will push it. And without any safety nets or regulations to prevent the spread of misinformation or awareness of its abundance, we live in the dark. Where fiction is commonly mistaken for fact, and fact is dubbed propaganda. Stricter rules and regulations need to be enacted to protect the sanctity of truth and keep people accurately informed.

  4. In the article written by Dr. Childs, he highlights the importance of media literacy, especially for teachers and students. These algorithms adapt to the way we use technology. Algorithms sort posts based on relevance, not just publish time, aiming to prioritize content based on user engagement likelihood. Algorithms, often crafted through machine learning, actively manage content flows, implement recommendations, and mediate interactions, shaping content discoverability. Using media is a great way to expand our learning beyond the classroom, but it’s important to have literacy in the media so it doesn’t become detrimental to your learning rather than helpful.

  5. In today’s world, social media algorithms hold significant power in shaping the information landscape as Dr. Childs says. These algorithms control what content appears on our feeds, subtly changing our preferences, beliefs, and behaviors. By tailoring content to individual preferences, algorithms reinforce existing viewpoints and limiting exposure to diverse perspectives. This phenomenon can lead to polarization, where individuals are increasingly isolated within ideological bubbles, unaware of alternative viewpoints.
    The constant stream of personalized content can foster addictive behaviors, encouraging excessive screen time and detracting from real-world interactions. Many users find themselves mindlessly scrolling through feeds, unaware of the hidden mechanisms driving their online experiences.
    For educators and students, understanding the inner workings of social media algorithms is crucial. Media literacy skills empower individuals to critically evaluate the content they encounter, discerning between credible information and misinformation.
    Building media literacy encourages active engagement with social media platforms, rather than passive consumption. Students can learn to question the algorithms’ recommendations, seek out diverse perspectives, and engage thoughtfully with the content they encounter. Ultimately, by gaining media literacy skills, educators encourage students to become conscious consumers and creators of digital content.

  6. The article discusses the idea of algorithms used by social media platforms. Our society, especially younger generations, has become reliant on social media and technology. Social media allows information to reach a large number of people very quickly. While this can be a good thing it is also dangerous. Social media is specifically designed to keep you on it, and you don’t control what you see. Apps monitor what you view, for how long, what you comment on and like and more. This information is then used to show you more things that they think you will like so you will continue to scroll. Misinformation and distractions grow very quickly. Especially with our upcoming generations it is crucial that we are aware of the influence that social media algorithms have on us.

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