Durham Startup Helps Students Use Social Media Positively—Especially Now

Laura Tierney, the Founder and CEO of Durham-based The Social Institute.

Laura Tierney grew up with a phone in her hand, always lectured by adults on how terrible technology was. But as a member of a digital-native generation, Tierney saw first-hand just how beneficial social media can be when she was graduating from Duke University (Class of 2009)—after earning All-America honors in field hockey for four straight years—and started using social media to land internships and jobs.

As the Founder and CEO of The Social Institute, Tierney believes positive social media technology is completely connected to our social-emotional health and well-being. In Tierney’s Durham-based startup, they are on a mission to support students and their ability to navigate technology and social media positively—instead of focusing on the negatives many students have grown up hearing about, just like Tierney had.

“I started this organization because I feel like I’ve lived the problem in the world personally,” Tierney said. “I feel like students across the country, they’re lectured a lot about how much they use technology. But I think it’s actually a huge positive in our lives and so I started the organization to amplify students’ voices and really show people across the country how positive technology could be.”

Four years ago, Tierney was pregnant when she founded The Social Institute, which is proudly female-led. Tierney said it’s a running joke that you need to have a toddler to join their startup, as all four employees are parents of toddlers, making team calls especially fun.

Tierney met her co-founder Maria Jankovics while working at McKinney, an ad agency in Durham.

“I had a really strong understanding of what students wanted because I was meeting with students across the country,” Tierney said. “And then Maria had this brilliant ability to build the technology that we were thinking of, and so it was kind of like a Pixar love story where you had really good storytelling and really good content, and then you combine that with really cool technology.”

Schools can benefit from The Social Institute’s fifth-to-12th grade #WinAtSocial gamified curriculum, which Tierney describes as “Kahoot meets social-emotional health and well-being” where students can self-reflect and exchange social-media tips. The startup also provides resources for parents and educators.

With the Covid-19 transition to remote learning, The Social Institute faced great changes but eventually saw an opportunity to help students and teachers even more.

“Everything was going just awesome, and then Covid-19 hit,” Tierney said. “I think one thing that our team does extremely well is see the glass as half-full. And when Covid-19 hit, all of my conversations with new schools and new clients totally stopped. They just paused.”

The Social Institute team took four weeks to figure out how to respond to this change. The team started to look at what students’ biggest needs are. Students gave them insight into the anxiety they were feeling more than ever, as well as feelings of fatigue and isolation.

#WinAtSocial LIVE

Along with engaging with a research advisory committee composed of a group of psychologists and social-emotional learning experts, The Social Institute launched a new enhanced offering called #WinAtSocial LIVE. The new initiative offers the technology and content updates for schools to have real-time, weekly, student-led discussions about trending concerns that students have.

The Social Institute currently supports and engages with around 40,000 students across the country at 67 schools.

“We’re hoping that we can give people right now the gift of a positive attitude and mental health, like self-care,” Tierney said. “And we can do that by inspiring students to connect with one another. This is not going to happen from an organization lecturing you on the importance of self-care. The most positive influence in a student’s life are their friends.”

The more that The Social Institute can work to foster social connections on social media while balancing screen time, the better. Tierney wants The Social Institute to be the gold standard in social-emotional health for schools across the country.

In the age of Covid-19, students are using social media as a microphone into the world—spreading good news, raising money for social causes, encouraging community building and connecting with the elderly, Tierney said.

“There are so many amazing things that students are doing right now through technology that I hope this proves to adults that technology is not the end of humanity,” Tierney said. “It actually enables humanity and connection.”

About Suzanne Blake 362 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.