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Are Phones and Social Media a Distraction in Museums and Galleries?

Get students thinking about how social media affects their experiences.

Tanner Higgin | September 5, 2019

We tend to think of museums and art galleries as places of quiet contemplation and reflection, but that's not always the case -- especially now that most visitors have smartphones in their pockets. Museums and art galleries have adapted for their guests, who want to take pictures and videos and share their experiences. Many museums now embrace this cultural shift with relaxed photo-taking rules and even exhibitions designed to be "Instagrammable." However, there's still a question of whether smartphones and social media enhance or distract from the museum experience. The following video, discussion activity, and handout will get your students to think about how devices affect the way they engage with art and culture, and how best to strike media balance in their lives.

Recommended for:

Grades: 6-12
Subjects: arts, digital citizenship, social studies, ELA

Prep for teachers

  • Optional: Print out copies of the "Media-Balanced Museum" handout.
  • Optional: Schedule this lesson before a field trip to a museum, gallery, or other cultural space.

In the classroom

Hook (seven to 10 minutes):

  • Before screening the video, ask students to take notes while they watch. Provide them with an essential question to focus their viewing -- e.g., "What effect have smartphones and social media had on museums and galleries?"
  • Show the Vox video "How Instagram Traps Are Changing Art Museums." Content warning: This video is sponsored by American Express, so there's a small pop-up American Express logo and an American Express advertisement at the end. 

Whole-class discussion activity (10-15 minutes):

  • Use the Connect Extend Challenge thinking routine to get students thinking critically about the video. 
    • Create three columns on your whiteboard or blackboard titled something like, "Already knew … ," "This was interesting … ," and "Not so sure about … ."
    • Use these categories to organize and record your classroom discussion. 
    • Students can share their responses in a group discussion and you can record the responses, or students can fill out Post-its and place them on the board. This could also work well with a simple spreadsheet projected in front of the class, especially a shared Google spreadsheet. Teachers could fill in students' responses as they say them aloud, and/or students with devices can type them into the spreadsheet.
      • Discussion tips:
        • Make sure the discussion focuses less on simple claims that something -- like taking photos in an art gallery -- is "good" or "bad" but on describing how students think taking photos (for instance) affects the experience.
        • If the discussion does move in this direction, try to help students consider these different viewpoints.
        • Students might have a hard time imagining a world without smartphones/social media, but they probably have had to deal with limits on their device use. Get them thinking about those times when they had to put their phones away and how it affected their experiences.

Student handout (can be done in class or at home depending on time)

  • Provide students with the "Media-Balanced Museum" handout, which invites them to imagine how they'd deal with smartphones and social media if they opened a museum or gallery.

 

Possible follow-ups

  • Teach or adapt the Social Media and How You Feel lesson from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum.
  • Student-reflection activity: Ask students to visit an arts and/or culture space they're familiar with but leave their phones at home. Possible spaces include: music or sports venues, museums or galleries, parks, libraries, restaurants or cafés, any other community-gathering places. Ask students to write a reflective essay or journal entry on the experience, focusing on how they experienced the place differently. (Make sure they don't just focus on it being better or worse, but on how and why the experience was different.)

Top photo credit: MudflapDC and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Editor's note: This resource is part of a monthly series that helps teachers facilitate classroom discussions about trending and timely issues in the news and media. For more, browse our library of news and media literacy articles.