Students Understand Social “Reality” Only When They Can Socially Analyze Multiple Realities

Students Understand Social “Reality” Only When They Can Socially Analyze Multiple Realities

Are Students Prepared When Personality and Power Control, Misrepresent, or Lie About the Truth?

If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this:  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.         Dr. Stephen R. Covey

Dear Colleagues,


   My biggest fear in writing this Blog is that some of you may not read past the first few paragraphs.

   I hope that you will. . . in fact, I hope you will read the entire Blog and honestly reflect on its message. . .

   But I will understand (but not reinforce) why some of you won’t.

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   I am a BIG “Survivor” fan!

   Truth be told, I even applied for Season 3 (I still even have my Audition Tape, and. . . . no. . . I will not post it on my website).

   While the current Survivor season is a handful of episodes in, the first two episodes highlighted Jackson Fox who is the first openly transgender cast member (but not the first such cast member) in Survivor’s 42 seasons.

   Significantly, virtually no one looking at or interacting with Jackson would know that he is transgender. Nonetheless, in Episode 2, he consciously decided to share this fact and his transformation story with the members of his “Tribe” (see the video below).

   Jackson didn’t make it very far as he was “pulled” from the “game” because the Producers were afraid that the physical (lack of water, sleep, food, athletic challenges) and emotional (personal and social stress) demands of Survivor would trigger an assortment of unsafe side effects related to the Lithium he had been taking for anxiety and to help him sleep.

   But this is not the issue. Instead, there are two “reality-related” issues here—for us as people, parents, and (educational) professionals.

Issue #1: Our Interpretation and Reactions to Our Life Realities Impact Our Social Success

   The first issue is how some of Fox’s cast members reacted to his descriptive gender transformation story on Episode 2 (watched by over 5 million viewers), and whether those who were morally, religiously, or just personally distressed or appalled by him might have let those emotions undermine their game strategy—thereby sacrificing their chance to become the “Sole Survivor” and the winner of the $1 million dollars.

   Survivor Host Jeff Probst calls Survivor the greatest social experiment on TV today. Indeed, many are the times when the real-life personalities, beliefs, and relationships of the cast members dominate the contrived nature of the game.

   This is evident as:

  • Cast members’ attitudes toward age or gender, race or sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or job title, and/or physical stature or attractiveness. . . mix with
  • The physical and emotional demands of living on an isolated island with limited provisions, periodic group and individual high-stakes contests, and a series of unpredictable game changes and challenges (e.g., reconfiguring, merging, or relocating the cast in and out of their different “tribes”) . . . and
  • The emotional demands of maintaining one’s personal and ethical standards while having cameras recording their every move while vying (lying) to win $1 million.

   They don’t call this “reality TV” for nothing.

   Significantly, if you watch Survivor, it is predictable how most cast members’ authentic personalities emerge under the stress of the “game,” and how the behaviors and emotions inherent in these personalities either facilitate or destabilize their interpersonal interactions with others.

   In the end, those cast members who are able to socially analyze and adapt flexibly to the different realities that Survivor throws at them are the ones who successfully navigate the game, learn and grow from it, and leave the “game” with a higher level of personal insight, perspective, appreciation. . . and, maybe, $1 million dollars.

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   And this is one of the points of this Blog. . .

   All of us are living a real-life game of Survivor.

   And how we reality-check and adapt flexibly to the different realities that:

  • We have recently experienced—for example, the Pandemic with its social isolation, unpredictability, and loss. . . and
  • We are experiencing right now—inflation and the economy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, issues of race and gender identity, the continuing political landscape. . .
  • . . . will determine our personal and interpersonal success as individuals, within our families and friendships, and at work and in the community.

Issue #2: Children Need to be Taught How to Understand and Respond to Life Realities

   The second issue, related to Fox’s presence and gender transformation story on Survivor, is that it was watched by countless children and adolescents—some of whom did not know or fully understand who a “transgender” person was/is.

   This issue relates to the many children and adolescents who—whether through Survivor or their family or social lives—have been exposed to the potential, if not the presence, of transgender and other LGBTQIA individuals, and who need a clear, developmentally-appropriate, factual understanding of who they are.

   And, honestly, with years of discussions, arguments, and court battles over transgender pronouns, bathrooms, participation in sports, and more. . . how many students are not aware of these transgender and LGBTQIA situations, even though they may not be knowledgeable regarding these students (see the video below)?

   As noted, our children and adolescents are exposed to, confronted by, and live with many social and other issues that occur during their day-to-day “realities.” Exposure to and interactions with transgender and LGBTQIA peers and adults are just one such issue.

   Simplistically, adults (teachers) have two polar opposite approaches to helping our children and adolescents navigate these issues:

  • Ignore and “protect” them from the issues and/or the diverse—and sometimes contradictory and contentious—opinions regarding them; or
  • Inform and instruct them regarding the issues and contradictions—giving them a developmentally-sensitive social problem-solving framework to use, over time, to make their own decisions.

   For me—as in the title of this Blog—students can only understand and reconcile the social “realities” in their lives (which extend to local, state, national, and international issues and events), when they can socially analyze and understand others’ similar and different social realities (note the Covey quote at the top of this Blog).

   And yet, there are some who want to restrict this educative approach.

   With all due respect to those who disagree, these issues need home-school-and-community discussions. . . because these issues transcend the home setting and parental discretion. We need to listen to and discuss these issues. They should not (as they already have) become lightning rods for arguments, insults, filibusters, politicization, and demagoguery.

   To wit:

  • While Florida Governor DeSantis recently signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that will not eliminate discussions about LGBTQIA students and people. In fact, it will only mean that students will discuss these issues outside of their formal education and, perhaps, access and embrace information that is biased, inaccurate, or damaging.

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  • If State Legislatures (or even individual principals or librarians) ban and remove certain school library books, students who want to read these books will still get them (can you spell “Amazon”?), and other students not exposed to them will not have the opportunity to debate their meaning and implications.

[Parenthetically, according to Goodreads, the Top Ten Most Banned Books are: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Diary of a Young Girl,” “1984,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Carrie,” “The Lorax,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” and “Watership Down.”]

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  • If the South Dakota and Louisiana State Departments of Education, for example, want to ignore the historical experts that they collaborated with in their respective states, and rewrite and sanitize their K-12 American History standards and content. . . avoiding a critical thinking and inquiry-based analysis of our country’s strengths and weaknesses . . . then students will be less prepared to understand contemporary race and other cultural issues, to succeed in a global economy and society, and/or to differentiate between reality and fake news.

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   In summary, here are some of the relevant lessons:

  • Parents (and educators) cannot fully control everything that their children (and students) are exposed to;
  • Children are naturally curious, and they want to understand strange, unique, controversial, and enigmatic things in their social worlds;
  • Parents (and educators) cannot successfully sterilize or insulate their children’s (and students’) worlds to fully isolate them from information, topics, experiences, and circumstances that the adults deem “off-limits”; and
  • In the absence of the information and adult discussion, instruction, and guidance, some children (and students) will access the information anyways through peers, the internet, and/or social media. . . but they may get misinformation, and they may not have the skills to differentiate between fact and fiction.

   While a terrible analogy, controversial topics can be like COVID-19. We can sterilize, isolate, and protect ourselves to the extreme, but some children and adults still are exposed and fall prey to it.

Preparing Students When Personality and Power Control, Misrepresent, or Lie about the Truth

   Over the past few years, an additional layer of instruction has become essential to prepare our students—as above—to differentiate between fact and especially fiction.

   Some of the fiction (e.g., fake news) occurs through the media and social media, and some of it is “controlled” by algorithms that are embedded in the social media apps that students are using on their computers and smartphones.

   Some of the fiction is benign. . .

   But some of the fiction is intentionally motivated to change, indoctrinate, or solidify specific attitudes, opinions, or behaviors in a new generation of eventual adults.

   In fact, some of this latter fiction has financial, commercial, political, antisocial, and malicious underpinnings, and some involves misinformation, disinformation, or flat-out lies.

   If students are not taught and do not master necessary social media literacy skills, then they become susceptible to these traps, and they can internalize the inaccurate messages while externalizing inappropriate or maladaptive behavior.

   Some recent examples of Fake News or Disinformation that could confuse students include:

  • Disinformation on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.

A recent Education Week article (March 11, 2022; CLICK HERE) interviews Eisha Buch, the director of education programs for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that encourages the teaching of media literacy in schools. Buch notes how TikTok is being used to disseminate Russian propaganda through fabricated news, image, and video reports related to the invasion of Ukraine.

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  • Critical Race Theory (CRT)—what it is and is not.

This is a continuing political and educational issue that impacts students in multiple ways.

For example, many students have not been taught what CRT truly is. They do not understand the issues and implications involved if a teacher were to discuss certain racial topics that are disallowed in some states. And, when uninformed, they cannot gauge the accuracy of certain accounts addressing CRT and other race-related topics posted on the internet and social media. . . or discussed by their administrators and school boards.

We have discussed much of this in our December 4, 2021 Blog (CLICK HERE).

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  • Accounts of the Senate Confirmation Hearing of Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.

In a Forbes article (CLICK HERE), it was reported that, “Evaluators at the American Bar Association refuted Republican senators’ allegations that Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson had been lenient toward child pornography offenders, saying Thursday during her Senate confirmation hearing there’s ‘no evidence’ to support the claims, as they emphasized how well qualified she is to serve on the court.”

If students are unexposed to this evidence, their opinions of this important historical event may be based only on the original question-and-answer interactions between these senators and the Supreme Court nominee.

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   As noted above, given all of this, students need social media training so that they can differentiate between fact and fiction—especially when facts and information are misrepresented by those in power or those who wish to assert their power.

   Here, Eisha Buch—the Common Sense Media director referenced in the March 11, 2022 Education Week article above—suggests the following in response to a question asking her for the “top tips for spotting disinformation and what questions students should be asking themselves when they view content on social media”:

Look for unusual URLs or site names, including those that end in a “dot co.” Those are trying to appear like legitimate sites but they’re not. A second tip is to look for signs of low quality—words in all caps, headlines that have grammatical errors, bold claims that have no sources, or really sensationalized images—those are signs or clues that you should be skeptical of the source.

Check a website’s “About Us” section. Find out who supports the site or who is associated with it. If this doesn’t exist and it requires you to register before you can learn anything about the backers, then that should be a red flag and you should wonder why they aren’t being transparent up front.

Consider whether other credible mainstream news outlets are reporting the same news—corroborate the story. If they’re not, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true, but it does mean you should definitely dig deeper.

The last one, which is also a question to ask yourself, is to check your emotions: click bait and fake news strives for extreme reactions. If the news is making you feel really angry, it could be a sign that you should dig deeper and check multiple sources.

Consider the diversity of backgrounds of your students. Depending upon the news ... different kids may respond and react differently to what they are seeing and hearing, especially if they have differences in their family backgrounds or situations.

These are tips or strategies for spotting fake news or misinformation in articles. But to how we talked about in the beginning, how are young people finding this fake news? If it is on social media, it does become a little bit harder.

To me, that’s where it’s more about what are the questions you’re asking yourself. So, do you understand how the algorithm works? [For instance, some social media algorithms tend to flood users with information that tends to confirm their worldviews rather than question them, creating a sort of information echo chamber.] What am I seeing? What content is being served up to me? Why is this content being served up to me? And that, to me, goes back to the idea of, do you understand how the algorithm works?

And then being able to, of course, try to corroborate those stories. You can do reverse image searches to really see whether the images are fake or not. There are ways even through social media that you can do additional steps to check the credibility of what you’re seeing.

In terms of questions. Asking yourself, “what’s the difference between a theory and an actual conspiracy? Why is this so appealing to me?” Notice your gut reaction. Is there a motive behind the person or the source who is putting this information out there? Is there potentially an ulterior motive?


   Some might say that Survivor is not reality, but a manipulation of reality. And I believe that this is an accurate characterization.

   And yet, despite some of the contrived situations on Survivor, the cast members are tasked with physically surviving on a deserted island, they are emotionally invested and motivated to win the game, and their reactions and interactions on Survivor are real—and often representative of their interactions with others when they are home, at work, or socializing with friends.

   As a parallel and reflecting the “social experiment” nature of Survivor, it is interesting to recall:

  • Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s studies in the 1960s where he investigated how far people would go—relative to obedience and authority—to obey an order. His experiments involved instructing those participating in his studies to deliver increasingly high-voltage shocks to an actor in another room, who would scream and eventually go silent as the shocks became stronger.

While the shocks weren't real, the study participants were made to believe that they were, and some obeyed the study experimenter who exhorted them to increase the voltage and disregard the screams.

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  • Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford University prison experiment. Designed to last two weeks and study the psychological impact of becoming a prison guard or prisoner, the experiment was discontinued after six days because many of the guards in the simulated prison became abusive, and the prisoners eventually engaged in a riot.

More specifically, as tensions began to escalate on Day Two, prisoners eventually barricaded themselves inside their cell, and the guards used fire extinguishers to break the riot, also implementing various psychological tactics as a way of regaining control.

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  • Psychologist Walter Mischel’s 1972 Marshmallow experiment investigating children’s ability to delay gratification. In this study, a child between 3 and 5 years old was brought into a room and presented with a reward, usually a marshmallow or some other desirable treat. The child was told that the researcher had to leave the room, but if they could leave the marshmallow alone until the researcher returned, the child would get two marshmallows instead of just the one they were presented with. If they couldn’t wait, they wouldn’t get the more desirable reward.

Years later, Mischel followed up with some of their original study participants. He discovered that those children who were able to delay gratification during the marshmallow test were rated significantly higher on cognitive ability, had higher SAT scores, and were more able to cope with stress and frustration as adolescents.

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   Regardless of your opinion of Survivor as a reflection of “real life,” it is real that Survivor highlighted the presence of a transgender cast member earlier this season.

   And this potentially did create a necessary teachable moment for both children and adults watching the episode.

   Finally, this does symbolically represent hundreds of similar circumstances where the media and social media introduce controversial topics—some which are true, and others which involve fake news—that children and adolescents need to understand and navigate in their own lives.

   Indeed, a study published yesterday (March 25, 2022) by Eisha Buch’s (again) Common Sense Media group found a 17% increase in screen use among teens and tweens during the (Pandemic) last two years.

   On average, daily screen use went up among tweens (ages 8 to 12) to five hours and 33 minutes from four hours and 44 minutes the two years prior, and to eight hours and 39 minutes from seven hours and 22 minutes for teens (ages 13 to 18).

   And so, our Conclusions are:

  • Students’ understanding, interpretations, and reactions to the information and issues that they are exposed to in the media and social media—including those related to politics, race and gender, socioeconomic status and inequity, past and present historical events, health and mental health—frame their realities and how they respond internally (e.g., emotionally, relative to self-esteem) and externally (e.g., interpersonally, relative to adults and peers).

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  • Adults need to understand that they cannot fully control everything that children and adolescents are exposed to, and that trying to artificially shield them from controversial, but prevalent, issues only means that that the children and adolescents will find a way to “self-educate,” and that some of this “education” may be inaccurate and harmful.

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  • Children and adolescents need to be explicitly and progressively taught social media literacy skills so that they can differentiate between fact and fiction, accurate news and fake news.

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   As always, I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks deeply about the issues or recommendations that we share.

   Even as the school year begins to wind down, and some are already thinking about next year, if I can help you in any way—in my different areas of expertise (see our Website:, know that I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students and colleagues.