Beginning with a discussion of a recent Missouri law restricting communications between public school employees and students, this post offers a broader perspective on why both individuals and organizations should support limits on social networking interactions between adults and minors, as well as among other people whose primary connection is professional rather than personal. It also proposes an alternative approach to managing the inherent risks and creating new potential benefits: Private Digital Networks (PDNs).
Recently there have been a number of news stories and blog posts about a new Missouri law that allegedly prohibits teachers and other public school staff from interacting with students on social networking sites. Here are some of the pieces I read, listed in chronological order:
- Missouri Bans Students and Teachers from being Facebook Friends
- New Law Says NO to Teachers Friending Students on Social Networks
- Missouri Outlaws Student-Teacher Facebook Friendship
- Social Media Between Students and Teachers Restricted in Missouri
- Should Teachers Be Allowed To 'Socialize' With Students After School?
- Why Missouri's Ban on Teacher-Student Facebook Friendships Is Doomed
Like many stories about social media and digital technology – especially those that appear to be connected to individual rights such as free speech and privacy – it seems that there was a selective focus and slant to the coverage that incited strong emotional reactions and passionate comments decrying governmental overreach, civil rights abridgement, and a litany of other “Big Brother” type evils. The titles of the first, second, third and sixth pieces above, for example, are patently false. The law does not “ban” or “outlaw” friendships between students and teachers. In fact, it doesn’t even come close to that. Similarly, some writers have claimed that the law requires communications between teachers and students to be completely transparent or public, which is also not true.
Focusing on the Facts
Proper management of cyber interactions between teachers and students – as well as those between other adults and minor children – is an important Digital Era issue that needs to be carefully considered and handled responsibly. But people can't engage in healthy debate of the issues unless they're well informed. I always find it helpful to go to the original sources rather than relying on second-hand information/interpretations. The site below includes a link to the final version of the bill that was signed into law.
Although many reports give the impression that the restrictions on digital communications between teachers and students is the primary crux of the law, it is a relatively small but critical component. The law is generally focused on child sexual abuse, with some emphasis on sexual misconduct by teachers and other public school staff. The section on student communications covers just over a single page of the 35-page bill. Here is the relevant text:
162.069. 1. Every school district shall, by January 1, 2012, promulgate a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communication. Such policy shall contain at least the following elements:
(1) Appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with or included in any policy on sexual harassment; and
(2) Appropriate use of electronic media such as text messaging and internet sites for both instructional and personal purposes, with an element concerning use of social networking sites no less stringent than the provisions of subsections 2, 3, and 4 of this section.
2. As used in this section, the following terms shall mean:
(1) "Exclusive access", the information on the website is available only to the owner (teacher) and user (student) by mutual explicit consent and where third parties have no access to the information on the website absent an explicit consent agreement with the owner (teacher);
(2) "Former student", any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated;
(3) "Nonwork-related internet site", any internet website or web page used by a teacher primarily for personal purposes and not for educational purposes;
(4) "Work-related internet site", any internet website or web pages used by a teacher for educational purposes.
3. No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.
4. No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed as prohibiting a teacher from establishing a nonwork related internet site, provided the site is used in accordance with this section.
5. Every school district shall, by July 1, 2012, include in its teacher and employee training, a component that provides up-to-date and reliable information on identifying signs of sexual abuse in children and danger signals of potentially abusive relationships between children and adults. The training shall emphasize the importance of mandatory reporting of abuse under section 210.11540 including the obligation of mandated reporters to report suspected abuse by other mandated reporters, and how to establish an SCS SB 54 16 atmosphere of trust so that students feel their school has concerned adults with whom they feel comfortable discussing matters related to abuse.
- The law requires school systems to create (or update) their communications policies; it does not directly prohibit or restrict interactions between adults and students via digital channels.
- The new/revised policies must address all forms of communication, not just digital communications. I suspect digital communications are highlighted because they're relatively new, and - more importantly - because they can escalate and intensify much more quickly than other means.
- The law defines a minimum standard for the policies, which allows the school systems to create more restrictive rules if they choose.
- The key term in the minimum standard seems to be "exclusive access," which is defined to be only between the student and the teacher (for example). If the communication is accessible by a parent, guardian, and/or administrator, it may be permissible (depending on the policies developed by each school system).
In my view, the policy standard set forth in this law is far less restrictive than the general interpretations that are being bandied about, and generally reasonable. It doesn’t preclude teachers from interacting with students on social networking sites, or even connecting with them directly (e.g., friending them on Facebook), as long as there is a degree of transparency to those interactions/connections. I don’t see why any parent, public school employee or student should have an issue with that.
Taking a Broader View
As noted above, the Missouri law is focused on child sexual abuse, with an emphasis on sexual misconduct by public school employees. But there are many other valid reasons for restricting – or even prohibiting – interactions between teachers/staff and students on social networking sites. These restrictions could also be extended to interactions with parents and between supervisors and subordinates as well.
Furthermore, I would argue that similar restrictions should be considered in any organization that involves relationships and interactions between adults and minor children, including private schools, churches, sports teams, charities and other non-profit organizations, health care providers, and private social clubs. I would even recommend them for higher education institutions, especially those that have large undergraduate populations with traditional-aged students (i.e., under 21).
Related Resource: Social Media Policies: Necessary but not Sufficient
Some people have attempted to compare social networking interactions to phone calls and other digital interactions such as email and texting. But they’re hardly the same. Phone calls, emails, and texting are all forms of direct communication that are specifically focused. Social networking sites, however, are full of “indirect” communications (e.g., status updates, photos, videos), from both people to whom we are directly connected as well as those in related networks (e.g., friends of friends). Given that, the complexities and risks of connecting on social networks are far greater than in other channels.
Since Facebook is the largest social network currently, I’ll focus on that in offering my rationale for restricting relationships and interactions. I’ll further concentrate on teachers and students; however, similar arguments can be applied to other adult/minor relationships outside the context of family and friends, as well as relationships between adults whose relationships are primarily or exclusively professional.
Privacy and personal/professional boundaries. Mark Zuckerberg has famously said that privacy is no longer a ‘social norm,’ and many other social media advocates support the notion of blending our personal and professional lives. I don’t share their enthusiasm. We all assume different roles in our lives, and we act differently in these various roles and in different contexts. Boundaries are important in managing our different roles and maintaining a necessary sense of time and place.
For most people, Facebook is a space to interact personally, sharing details of their private lives as well as private thoughts and feelings with a network of family and friends. It is not a professional network. When teachers and students connect on Facebook, they almost instantly take their interactions outside the professional boundaries of their relationship by giving each other access to their private lives. In addition, they also give each other access to the other people in their private networks through the “friends of friends” connections.
Some people will make the argument that teachers should be able to interact with students on social networks like Facebook because they have to connect with them “where they live,” but I think that’s the wrong approach. Rather than indulging students by doing what’s easiest for them, teachers should help them understand the importance of creating and managing boundaries, as well as their digital identities and activities. Doing so could be considered an important civics lesson.
Risks. Most of the activity in which people engage on Facebook is widely shared with everyone in their networks. Although Facebook allows for selective sharing, the management tools are very cumbersome, and very few people take advantage of them. In addition, many people have not set up proper privacy controls to ensure that people to whom they’re not connected can’t access their information or activity.
The limitations in how people manage their Facebook activity increase the likelihood that a teacher or a student will see something they do not want to see or should not be exposed to. For example, teachers who friend their students may have access to conversations about illegal activity (e.g., underage drinking, drug use) and/or inappropriate behavior (e.g., bullying, harassment, violence), both directly and indirectly. Given their roles, they may have a duty to report that activity. They – and their school systems – could also be accused of negligence for not responding appropriately to information obtained via social networking activity.
Teachers are also vulnerable to negative consequences based on their own activity and that of their friends and family. In addition to the risks associated with displaying poor judgment (e.g., saying negative things about students, parents, and/or coworkers; sharing inappropriate photos), information can be taken out of context, jokes can be misunderstood, and their own past youthful indiscretions can come back to haunt them.
Simply put, the risks of crossing personal/professional boundaries by connecting on social networks far exceed the potential benefits.
Options for managing boundaries. It is possible for teachers and students to interact on Facebook without friending each other*, but the three main options each have their limits.
- Pages: Teachers can set up fan pages in which they share relevant information and interact with students, but the communications are limited in three key ways:
- Teachers can’t compel students to like their pages.
- All pages are public by definition, which can have a chilling effect on students. More importantly, they can create unnecessary risk and exposure for minor children.
- Teachers cannot message students as a group.
- Groups: Teachers can establish groups for specific courses, and communicate with students through them.* Although groups can be set up to be semi-private (i.e., visible only to group members) and allow teachers to message all group members directly, they can still have a chilling effect on students. In addition, because they are unofficial and operate outside a school’s firewall and policies (possibly), they can still create risks for both teachers and students.
- Messaging: It is possible for teachers and students to message each other through Facebook, but both parties must have their profiles set up properly; access is not automatic. Alternatively, teachers may be able to email students via their Facebook email addresses using their own school email accounts, if they know the correct email address to use. As with groups, however, if these communications take place outside the school’s systems, that can create risks.
Some people have advocated setting up separate Facebook accounts for their professional interactions, but doing so is a violation of Facebook’s terms of service. In addition, although doing so may protect a teacher’s privacy, it doesn’t offer similar protections for students with whom those teachers connect.
*Facebook changed the groups feature this year, and it’s unclear whether an individual can add people to a group without being friends with them first. This brings up another important limitation of Facebook: the lack of control over its features, and the general inability to prepare for changes to those features. Being dependent on an unpredictable platform creates a whole new set of problems that can defeat the intent of using it.
A Better Alternative
Rather than trying to leverage public social networks, school systems (and other similar organizations, as noted above), should consider creating their own Private Digital Networks (PDNs). In addition to the risks articulated earlier, it is not in an organization’s best interests to permit private (organization-based) interactions to occur in what are effectively public spaces. Leaders need to start thinking about cyberspace and digital interactions in the same way they do physical spaces and traditional interactions (e.g., face-to-face). As I noted in 10 Digital Era Truths, digital technology is an integral part of the world in which we live, and we need to think more seriously about how we operate there. There are many best practice approaches for our non-digital activities that can and should be applied to cyberspace as well.
PDNs don’t have to be super costly or cumbersome, and even financially-strapped organizations can find a way to fund them if they’re a strategic priority. Managing risks is certainly a significant incentive, but there are many benefits as well. PDNs, for example:
- Enable organizations to create a digital community/space to correspond with their physical community/space. Rather than having relevant digital interactions spread out through a variety of channels, they can be contained in a shared space.
- Can be designed to allow all stakeholders to congregate and interact in the shared space. With respect to a school, for example, PDNs can include not just teachers/staff and students, but also parents and volunteers.
- Create and respect proper boundaries between personal and professional interactions, as well as specific interaction contexts.
- Allow organizationally-related interactions to occur in an official, sanctioned, private environment.
- Promotes better communication and collaboration all relevant stakeholders by enabling them to interact in various ways (e.g., wikis, blogs, chats, forums) in addition to direct messaging.
- Maximizes flexibility for both individuals and the organization, in addition to offering more control over the digital platform through which community members interact.
Although this post is primarily focused on digital interactions between adults and minors outside the context of family/friend relationships, the ideas can also be applied to interactions among adults whose relationships are primarily or exclusively professional.
I believe PDNs are the wave of the future for organizations of all types. In addition to better enabling organizations to manage the risks associated with cyber interactions, they can produce a host of benefits that increase efficiency and effectiveness. In a future post, I’ll offer a guide to getting started with Private Digital Networks.
In the meantime, as always, I welcome your comments and questions.
- Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD