At the heart of the Common Sense Digital Citizenship Curriculum is a pretty simple pedagogical philosophy: Teens need an honest, supportive space to discuss and think through how to navigate the challenges of media and identity. These discussions can be helped by relevant examples from media and the world. But while there are tons of social media posts, videos, and articles to pull, there are shockingly few age-appropriate movies that accurately represent the lived experiences of teens, not to mention the way the internet and social media affect identity and relationships. In fact, I'd make the claim there's only one: Eighth Grade, released in 2018 by A24 and written and directed by Bo Burnham.
Eighth Grade explores the messy complexity of growing up, and it's this weirdness, confusion, and ambivalence that can be a gold mine for generative, grounded discussions.
What's unique about Eighth Grade is it doesn't fall into the "How do you do, fellow kids?" trap. If you're not familiar with that meme, you should be: It's from a 30 Rock episode where Steve Buscemi, playing a private detective, goes undercover in a high school, 21 Jump Street-style. He thinks he blends in, but it's obvious he sticks out like a sore thumb (or a deeply middle-aged guy with a backward baseball cap and a skateboard). This is how most media made by adults aimed at teens appears: Well-meaning adults think they're making something relatable with great lessons for teens, but it comes off as pedantic, moralizing, and, worst of all, out of touch.
Far from following this trend, Eighth Grade explores the messy complexity of growing up, and it's this weirdness, confusion, and ambivalence that can be a gold mine for generative, grounded discussions. The movie tackles tough topics like bullying, relationships, sex, and self-confidence but offers no black-and-white solutions or good or bad choices. Instead, it explores internal and external conflicts, good intentions and bad intentions, and success and failure. And just about every decision or outcome in the film lies somewhere in between. This ambivalence extends to social media and devices, which are shown to be both a help in, and a hindrance to, finding one's place in the world. The result is an adept tightrope walk between contemporary and timeless issues, showing the familiar yet unfamiliar struggles of growing up in a hyper-mediated world.
If you're planning to arrange a screening of the film or some clips, check out the following digital citizenship discussion points that will be particularly resonant for students. These questions and more can be found in our full downloadable and printable discussion guide.
Key discussion questions
What purpose does Kayla's YouTube channel play in her life? How does it help her/hold her back?
One thing I love about Eighth Grade is how Kayla uses YouTube as a kind of theatrical confessional. Her persona on YouTube is in many ways an ideal version of how she could/should think and act. It offers her a place to practice being confident and self-assured. Does this mean it's phony? Is it bad to try out different identities? Isn’t all social media to some extent performance?
In her videos Kayla talks about "being yourself," but she also says she feels nervous all the time. Why do you think the way Kayla acts in real life vs. online are different?
This is a good follow-up to the first question. The important thing here is helping students unpack the porous boundary between online and real life and how each informs the other. Our knee-jerk reaction is to say there's a big separation or none at all, but the reality lies somewhere in between.
The high school students are shocked when they find out Kayla got Snapchat in fifth grade. Do you see those kinds of differences between you and students in other grades? What are they?
Too often we see technology and social media from our adult perspective, where the platforms we use or how we use them changes very slowly. But from a teen's point of view, social platforms are ever-evolving and so are the sensibilities of them. If you listen to how teens perceive social media, it can often be surprising how much savvier they are about how it should or shouldn't be used. Many teens, for instance, are hyperaware of how public social media is and create multiple accounts, each with its own use and privacy settings. By digging into these differences, especially as they relate to different platforms and age groups, we can help students approach social media use thoughtfully.
How does Kayla build confidence throughout the film? When things don't go well, how does she cope? Where do teens get confidence, and how does social media affect it?
This question gets at one of the core themes of the film: Kayla's struggle is about finding and feeling confident in her emerging identity. It's a process we continually go through our entire lives but one that's particularly fraught in middle school and high school. What would be interesting to hear from teens is how they've felt their own identities and attitudes have evolved during their lives, and whether social media or technology have had any influence on that evolution. Do selfies, for instance, offer a way to try out new selves or to get positive affirmation from friends? Alternatively, do they depend too much on outside approval?
With all these questions, including the ones in the discussion guide, we're trying to get away from digital citizenship discussions that are fixated on internet safety. Let's take a cue from Eighth Grade, and instead of perceiving students as out of control, in danger, and in need of a strict set of rules, let's start from a place of understanding. We need to acknowledge that being a teen is tough. Social media makes it weird in new ways. To help, we need to learn what unique experiences and challenges teens face and then help them think through those experiences and build confidence. Half the battle is being present. The other half is making mistakes and moving forward.