School Climate & Safety

Social-Networking Web Sites Pose Growing Challenge for Educators

By Andrew Trotter — February 14, 2006 6 min read
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With social-networking Web sites such as MySpace.com, Xanga.com, and Facebook.com enjoying explosive popularity among students nationwide, educators and parent groups are taking steps to minimize the dangers of the Internet sensation.

The popular commercial Web sites offer a free, easy way to create personal Web pages and fill them with content: text diaries or “blogs,” digital snapshots, favorite songs, and short video clips. Social networks are formed as members link their Web pages to those of their friends and search through the vast sites to find new friends who share common interests.

Beyond the sites’ social aspects, students and some educators say they offer young people a valuable showcase for writing and other forms of self-expression.

“It gets you to know people who go to your school that you wouldn’t regularly talk to,” said Ashley Yager, a 12th grader at Fairfax Magnet Center for the Visual Arts in Los Angeles. What’s more, she added, “you get to know people out of school, besides the person in your class.”

Yet the sites have given rise to issues that leach into schools in ways that can be worrisome. Concern is running high that students are posting information that exposes them to invasions of privacy and safety threats. School bullies can turn to social-networking pages as a way to torment their victims. On occasion, students have anonymously created pages—often with humorous intent—that purport to be those of principals or teachers.

Response Disjointed?

Personal Space

Students such as Ashley Yager of Carson, Calif., often post a range of information about themselves on social-networking Web sites that have recently mushroomed in popularity.

Status: In a Relationship
Here for: Friends
Orientation: Straight
Hometown: CaRsOn,CaLiFoRNiA
Body type: 5' 6"
Ethnicity: Black/African descent
Religion: Catholic
Zodiac sign: Cancer
Smoke/Drink: No/Yes
Children: Someday
Education: High school
Occupation: hUsLtA
Income: $30,000 to $45,000

BRIC ARCHIVE

Photo courtesy of Ashley Yager

About me:
• named Ashley
• 17
• residing in carson
• Louisiana born
• black and creole
• senior at fairfax high school

In response, many districts have banned the use of the social-networking sites on campus, though often not effectively. Some schools have forbidden students to use school e-mail accounts to sign up for such sites. Many schools have begun educating parents about the sites. And some are planning to incorporate lessons on them into their classes.

Nancy E. Willard, an authority on school Internet policies, says such efforts are laudable but often disjointed.

“Safe-schools committees are working on student-safety risks, and the tech department is doing Internet-use policies—they’re not at the same table,” said Ms. Willard, who operates the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, in Eugene, Ore. Instead, she argues, schools should take a “comprehensive management approach” to the phenomenon.

Teenagers say they get hooked on building and browsing the social networks, playing online games and music posted by their friends, answering lifestyle quizzes, and exchanging comments online into the wee hours.

It’s unclear how much of the growth of MySpace—the most popular of the social- networking sites, with more than 50 million members worldwide—is due to school-age youngsters. But many schools are seeing heavy enrollment, experts on the trend say. Efforts to reach MySpace officials for this story were unsuccessful.

Even middle schoolers are getting into the act. Although the sites officially do not grant membership to people younger than age 14, many students use false ages and names.

At Ms. Yager’s school in Los Angeles, MySpace is “pandemic,” said Alan M. Warhaftig, a teacher and administrator there.

“All my 11th graders, except for three or four, out of 35, have MySpace sites,” he said. He noted that the school’s Internet filter blocks access to social- networking sites from school computers.

Catalina Lee, a 12th grader at the school, said she has organized a MySpace group of about 20 Fairfax Magnet Center students who write fantasy stories on her page, called Shroomland.

“It’s fun, because I can actually chat with my friends. We can come up with stories, but we don’t have to be together,” said Ms. Lee.

Ms. Yager, 17, said she started her MySpace page after her friends signed up. Hers features her photo and facts about herself, and a long list of comments from friends—embellished with cartoons, video clips, and logos. She said the pages are a way to discuss homework assignments, to keep a “Top 8” list of favored friends, and to blog about the prom or a failed test.

Outsize Impact

Dennis Ford, the superintendent of the Amherst, N.Y., school district, learned about the online networks last fall when a parent handed him printouts of photographs posted on one of the sites, depicting local high school students partying with alcohol. Separately, the superintendent said, several students complained to him that a schoolmate had posted images of them without their permission.

“When we looked into it, we found there is not much we could do about it,” Mr. Ford said.

Instead, phone calls among parents led to the pictures’ removal from the site.

Even though her students are only in middle school, Deborah B. Finley, a school counselor in Chesapeake, Va., is working to educate parents. “Basically, the kids are ahead of the parenting—that’s a problem,” she said.

Ms. Finley uses the PTA and school newsletters to publish brief items—“Digi-No’s”—that “begin to open parents’ eyes as to what kids are doing, without accusing the kids.”

Many students are naive about privacy and are “floored” to realize that adults can easily read what they come to think of as a personal diary, she said. Unfortunately, she added, the Web pages give normal adolescent behavior, including bullying and experiments with personality and sexuality, an outsize impact.

To spot trouble, Ms. Finley now occasionally trolls through MySpace and Xanga sites for references to the 940-student school where she works, which she said the principal asked not be named.

If she finds a questionable page, she calls the parents and urges them to ask their child to show it to them. Last fall, her searching uncovered an online sexual discussion with an adult on the page of one of her students.

“I have no doubt it was a predator this child was engaging with,” Ms. Finley said.

Caution Counseled

Experts on Internet safety say the rise of social-networking sites brings new urgency to advice they’ve been giving for years. That counsel includes requiring that, before students are allowed on the Internet at school or with school equipment, students sign appropriate-use policies, which should be sure to address cyber-bullying and privacy of personal information.

Internet filters block the MySpace.com and Xanga.com Web addresses from school computers, but hundreds of Web sites now detail techniques for getting around school filters—with names such as letmeby.com and unblockmysite.com.

At least one private school in the Washington area has prohibited students from using school “.edu” e-mail accounts to sign up for Facebook.com, a site that was originally just for college students but recently expanded to include high schools. As a security measure, the site requires students to register with a school-issued e-mail address, and only members can browse through student profiles.

Districts probably are legally responsible for the consequences of students’ accessing the sites when on campus or with school-issued equipment, such as a laptop computer, according to R. Craig Wood, a lawyer in Charlottesville, Va., who specializes in school law.

“If it is off-campus activity, and nonschool equipment, then school officials can only regulate what a student does [online] if they can show a substantial disruption of the educational process,” he said.

Superintendent Ford said his 3,150-student district in New York has asked teachers to add lessons on the social-networking sites to the health and safety curriculum. The district is also organizing a series of speakers, including law-enforcement officers and Internet-safety experts, to begin this spring.

His high school principal recently sent parents a letter outlining concerns about the sites and suggesting ways of talking to their children about them. And capitalizing on a recent surge of awareness among parents, the district PTA has also become “very active” on the issue, Mr. Ford said.

Despite the problems, Bob Turba, the chairman of student counseling at Stanton College Preparatory School, a public school in Jacksonville, Fla., said that he sees an upside to the sites.

“It’s getting the kids involved,” he said. Like some other observers, Mr. Turba believes the sites are a fad that will run its course.

“It will be like a lot of nanosecond trends,” he predicted. “The next new thing will come up, whatever that might be.”

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