Teaching Opinion

Evolving Issues With Social Media and Appropriate Usage for Students and Staff

By Starr Sackstein — October 15, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The world is growing increasingly more digital and online communication continues to blur the lines between personal and professional.

It is incumbent upon school systems and the people acting within them to understand where their personal rights start and end.

Social media is a powerful tool that can be leveraged as an advantage for schools, therefore we must define where what we share can impact the communities in which we reside both virtually and face to face. Legal boundaries are essential to the safety of the individuals involved and the systems they function within.

Many educators, at every level and in every role in organizations, are involved in a variety of different activities that can interfere with primary work and potentially create conflicts of interest in terms of them using social media for their personal brands. For example, if an educator is also an author or blogger and spends personal time as a consultant, but what he or she writes doesn’t align with a school’s vision, then conflicts can arise if the social media account doesn’t clearly delineate a separation.

Because of this these other forums and learning and/or working networks that educators spend time on not only blur the line of free speech but also in terms of privacy. Twenty years ago, if educators weren’t within a five-mile radius of the school systems they worked in, the lives they led outside of school were relatively private and separate from their work lives. Today, privacy is a right we have, but one many of us forfeit by sharing our thoughts and experiences on social networks. Once we shed that cloak of secrecy by being open online, we invite scrutiny from a number of stakeholders in the community, including our students.

Students are online now as well. Most social networking sites require users to be at least 13 to be on them, many students lie about their ages to obtain free accounts to communicate with peers before they turn 13. In many cases the students are in the same spaces as many of their teachers and school leaders. There are a whole host of ethical questions that arise as a result of the possibilities of the intersections that inevitably occur.

  • How private should our online personas be and can we be held responsible to our employers for things we say and do outside of school?
  • Should teachers and students be “allowed” to be “friends” on social outlets like Facebook or is that inviting potential gray areas that are more difficult to police?
  • And what of the implications for social media usage and privacy for students both inside and out of school where bullying and/or unacceptable behaviors are being carried out?
  • What is a teacher to do when he or she sees something on social media that would have to be reported because of the mandated reporter laws in our states?

In the 21st century, free speech and personal privacy are challenged in ways that weren’t imagined years ago and as the world continues to grow more dependent on technology the way we consider our relationships with those social networks that reside on it, must change to suit the current climate.

Impact of Social Media on Education

With social media being a part of the new fabric of our lives, school leaders have a particularly challenging role in determining the appropriate usage of certain platforms in learning spaces K-12. Carefully considering the educational impact as well as the potential harm that can come from social media begs leaders to consider purpose more than anything else. If a school district is using social media to promote messages of student learning and growth in a district, there is a clear definition of usage as long as students and staff are aware and sign waivers to be a part of the promotion.

Educators, however, need to be careful according to FindLaw.com: “The Supreme Court, in Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case where a prosecutor was transferred and denied a promotion after questioning the credibility of a deputy sheriff, greatly restricted the freedom of speech of public employees by holding that speech pursuant to one’s official duties that harms one’s employer can lead to discipline. In other words, a tweet from an account identifying the speaker as a teacher at a particular school criticizing the school or the district (or perhaps a student or student’s parent) may lead to discipline or termination if it could potentially damage the employer.” Additionally, teachers whose jobs have been questioned, have mixed messages about social media usage because some schools expect for teachers to communicate with students and families online as a part of their policies according to Papandrea (2012).

“In an effort to avoid the possibility of inappropriate communications with students, some states and school districts have adopted laws or policies restricting electronic communication between teachers and students, some of which require teachers to communicate with students only through school-provided or school approved technology and/or provide that online communications must be limited to school related matters.” Papandrea (2012).

This could potentially muddy the waters as we try to draw these important boundaries of appropriateness with clarity and certainty. Do we decide that we should be all in, and make very clear the definition of usage, or do we just make clear where the line gets crossed?

For students and school systems the line is blurry too. It is a school system’s job to make sure that students are safe and that safety now can’t just be what happens during the school day, but also what happens between students online after school hours. Social media and other means of electronic communications make accessibility readily available. Students who once only had to deal with bullying tormentors during the day have literally no escape once they get home.

Because of this schools have had to adjust policies to ensure the safety for all across platforms both in and out of school. Additionally, since teachers and students have access to each other, the lines of appropriateness of student-teacher relationships can also be problematic.

What struggles have you faced and how has your school worked with these challenges? Please share.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.