But a new law – the first of its kind in the nation – will forbid "exclusive," or private, conversations between teachers and students on social media platforms, in an attempt to curtail the potential for inappropriate conversations, sexual harassment, or abuse.
In so doing, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act raises important questions: What is appropriate online etiquette between students and teachers? And to what extent – if any – should social media be regulated, in an era when young people choose sites like Facebook and Twitter for information and communication?
"I think this law is an attempt to guard against the dangers of social media, a [classical] response to technology that, 'Oh, my gosh, this is going to ruin the world,' " says Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches sexual exploitation of children. "But it's also saying, more seriously, 'Let's think about how to make people aware' " of the technology's impact, including its potential to exploit children, she adds.
Facebook officials say they've launched an investigative probe of the Missouri law, noting that their site can be is a "valuable educational tool." "It is imperative that this law does not limit schools' and teachers' ability to use technology in this way to educate Missouri's students," Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds wrote in an email to Fox News.
Teachers migrating online to meet their students where they (virtually) hang out is a trend that's been growing for years. For many teachers, it's a powerful new way to communicate outside of class, whether it be about projects or field trips. Studies have found it can boost educational opportunities and make teachers approachable in ways that help students connect with teachers and improve learning.
College students who accessed their professors' Facebook pages "anticipated higher levels of motivation and affective learning," says a new study in the journal Communication Education, which also warned of "possible negative associations between teacher use of Facebook and teacher credibility."
Parents should encourage teachers opportunities to meet students in these virtual spaces, driven by collaboration and knowledge-sharing, say some social media experts.
"I understand that we hold teachers to certain expectations, in terms of keeping communications with students beyond reproach, but I don’t think restricting the environment in which communication can take place is going to aid in that," says Michelle Manafy, author of "Dancing With Digital Natives." "And, frankly, it's missing an opportunity, an obligation, for us to guide young people in the appropriate use of technology. I think we abandon that role as teachers, mentors and parents at our own peril and at the peril of our young people."
Supporters of the Missouri law, which was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon on July 14, say it's not nearly as draconian as some have complained.
“This law in no way stops communication with students,” said state Sen. Jane Cunningham, the St. Louis County Republican who sponsored the bill. “In fact, we encourage social-media contact with students. We just require it to be appropriate, meaning it is not hidden from parents or from school personnel.”
Many teachers and free-speech advocates worry less about the letter of the law than its impact on teachers, who may well sign off their social media accounts rather than risk their jobs. They foresee teachers being preemptively punished for the potential acts of abusers – who, they say, will still find ways to contact kids privately.
“I think that reasonable teachers are going to be afraid to use Facebook or Twitter at all, or anything that allows for requiring mutual consent before you can see what's posted,” Tony Rothert, the legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, told the Kansas City Star, adding that the bill "silences a lot more speech than would be necessary to attack the problem."
Parents and legislators point to very real online threats to children. The school district in Bulloch County, Ga., this week is reviewing its social media policies after an 8th-grade teacher was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old student, whom the teacher allegedly contacted via social media sites.
Professor Shakeshaft says her research shows that 10 percent of all students report some kind of sexual misconduct by a teacher directed at them. Today, the majority of those encounters originate online, she adds.
"We don't allow teachers to bring a student exclusively into a room, shut the blinds and be alone with them," she says. "That's the same as bringing them into a private, exclusive relationship [online], where nobody can know what's going on."
It's too soon to know whether other states will follow Missouri's example in drawing boundaries between teachers and students in the vast – and growing – social media space.
So far, similar efforts have had trouble gaining traction. A proposed set of social media guidelines in Virginia this spring, for example, became a non-starter after it met with opposition from teachers, says Shakeshaft.