Prototyping for Social Wellbeing with Early Social Media Users


This blog post summarizes a paper published by Linda Charmaraman and Catherine Grevet Delcourt at CHI 2021. This work presents a remote innovation workshop with 23 middle schoolers on digital wellbeing, identity exploration, and computational concepts related to social computing we conducted in summer 2020. Participants in this workshop reflected on emergent online habits, discussed them with peers, and imagined themselves ICT innovator. In this blog post we summarize the structure of our workshop, resulting discussion themes related to participants’ social wellbeing online, and the participatory design and testing of a social network website.


The early habits that young adolescents (10–14 years old) develop on social media can have lasting effects on their socio-emotional wellbeing. At an age when social processes are key to their development, social wellbeing is essential as they transition from their family unit to rely more on peer networks. Building a strong sense of belonging, learning empathy and their role as part of a larger community are key components of their social wellbeing. Informal educational opportunities to reflect and engage on topics of social wellbeing, in the context of ICTs, are limited for today’s youth. Our summer workshop with 23 middle school students took place remotely, over 4 days. We discussed topics relating to social wellbeing, identity, and computational concepts related to social media. Through this workshop, we engaged students in online activities, and together designed a social media website to support social wellbeing that we iterated on during the 4 days.

Workshop Setup


Students came from 6 different middle schools across 3 states in 2 different time zones. They were 11 7th graders, 11 8th graders, and 1 9th grader, ranging in age from 12 to 14. The vast majority did not know each other beforehand. Our workshop students (13 females, 10 males) were also ethnically diverse.

Workshop Structure

Roles: The workshop was facilitated by the authors, a project coordinator, two high school students, and a recently graduated college senior. The research team structured the schedule, monitored the remote technologies (Zoom waiting rooms, Seesaw, etc.), and facilitate team building.

Data collection and analysis

We conducted a pre- and post- study survey to analyze the impact of the workshop. We captured the audio transcript of the Zoom calls. We collected submissions created by students using Seesaw (13 total). After the workshop, our team conducted a thematic analysis of our qualitative data sources, including audio transcripts, Seesaw activities, and prototype.

Results of thematic analysis of social wellness for early social media users

Through our discussion of wellbeing topics related to social media usage and identity formation, participants shared their early experiences using social media. The primary themes emerging from these discussions were 1) experimentation on social media, 2) sense of belonging, 3) self-care.

Affordances enabling experimentation

Participants described experiences experimenting with new apps as viewers of content, such as TikTok that grew in popularity in 2020 and that they tended to hear about through word-of-mouth. Participants reported rarely creating content. When they did, they were especially attuned to the comments they received. This feedback can have a lasting effect on the type of social media users they will become. They appreciated positive comments that boosts their confidence; they also mentioned feeling particularly vulnerable to mean comments. While the strongest influence for experimenting with social media was through friends, students in our workshop also discussed the pressure to experiment that they perceive while watching social media content, particularly when it came from online influencers.

Affordances enabling a sense of belonging

Participants described opportunities to explore different facets of their identity on social media. One student shared about how she really loves anime and she doesn’t have a community of friends who also love anime in school so she uses social media to connect with people in a larger community who share the same interest. With their close friends, students used many different types of applications, and most with their best friends. Snapchat was strongly associated with more intimate close friend communication. Specific features of Snapchat contributed to feeling more connected to friends such as maintaining streaks as a constant reminder to communicate:

Self-care and social support strategies

Participants actively sought videos to boost happiness. Knowing places that they could reliably find content that boosts their emotional state is a method of resiliency and self-care that these students demonstrated.

Iterative design of Social sketch

We conducted an iterative design process over the 4 days of the workshop, to design a supportive social website for early social media users. Over the course of the 4 days, students provided ideas for the design of this website, based on our wellbeing discussions.

Timeline of iterative design activities.
Example Social Sketch post from a workshop participant. This illustrates how a post appears, after iteration III, with signatures (currently Anonymous but users could change their username), a caption (Art), tags (My Sketches, Nature), and view counts (138).

Takeaways from the workshop

Overall workshop outcomes

Out of the 23 participants, 15 took both the pre- and the post-surveys. Girls reported increases in the importance of sharing about their abilities, achievements, and future career plans online and feeling of belonging in online communities. Girls reported an increase in their belief that they are good at computing and that learning about technology will give them many career choices. Overall, participants were less likely to think that computing jobs were boring. Girls’ self-esteem and sense of agency increased from pre-study to post-study. The most enjoyable activities involved guest speakers in ICT professions, testing iterations of the social media site, and identity exercises exploring career possibilities.

Roles in the cooperative design process

We found that the students in our workshop did not always take on the full innovator’s role that we set for them, due to lack of experience or functional fixedness, that is prior knowledge preventing them from expanding their creative thinking. For example, they tended to adapt the Seesaw prototypes to them as users rather than creators of the infrastructure, reverting to reconfiguration behaviors rather than innovation. It was difficult to distinguish them from their role as users, and customizing UI elements based on the content vs. the layout. This observation may be due to their stage as early social media users who are still navigating an ever-shifting digital landscape.

Honing in on student skills

Our dedication to supporting participants as design partners was also in helping train them to gain the necessary knowledge to be contributors. It is difficult to fully include middle school students in the design process of social systems due to the interdisciplinary and complexities involved. For example, understanding databases is a central technical component to building a multi-user system.

Remote format

Some of the positive aspects that emerged from our workshop were only possible because of the workshop structure: such as spending multiple days working on online projects together with a group of peers. The excitement and social proximity of this remote setting might inspire a different set of ideas than one developed in a shorter time, and may empower students differently than a classroom curriculum. We saw that some students started to participate more when other students had spoken, and they frequently bounced off of each other’s ideas.


For a more in-depth discussion and presentation of data, our complete paper is available at: Linda Charmaraman and Catherine Grevet Delcourt. 2021. Prototyping for Social Wellbeing with Early Social Media Users: Belonging, Experimentation, and Self-Care. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘21)



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