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Opinion: Schools fail to recognize privacy consequences of social media

More schools are using social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to reach out to students, parents, and local communities. But educators may not understand the privacy consequences that those accounts have for students and parents.

Like it or not, technology has become ubiquitous in the classroom. Google Chromebooks are commonplace in elementary and middle schools – even in some kindergarten classes – and students log online every day to improve their reading or math skills. Clubs, teams, and classes have Facebook accounts. Teachers tweet. And when it comes to sending home notes to parents, well, there’s an app for that, too.

But for schools, the move to digital has consequences for student and parent privacy. With the best of intentions, many schools waste no time setting up social media accounts – sometimes without the oversight of routine policy checklists and often without fully recognizing that a fundamental shift in outreach is taking place.

The reach of platforms like Facebook and Twitter goes far beyond traditional e-mail and newsletters. Organizational Twitter accounts are especially good channels for informing a diverse community about what’s happening at school. Faculty and administrators can provide real-time updates on major events and activities in ways that are more likely to reach their audiences quickly and effectively. Sports teams can build anticipation for home games. Chorus and drama departments can publicize events and performances. Across activities and clubs, school staff can highlight student accomplishments and bestow recognition. And, beyond students and parents, the broader community can gain a better sense of where its tax dollars are going – knowledge that’s especially valuable, come time to vote on budgets.

While these are promising new ways to communicate, an old lesson remains. Schools that aspire to be tech-savvy shouldn’t compromise student privacy. To cope with the the unique challenges social media brings as part of an ever-evolving technological landscape, schools must ask new questions and create new policies.

At a minimum, most schools and parents agree it’s best not to post or tweet student names. While it’s sensible to exclude this material, an unintended consequence has arisen that can lead to overconfident communication. In comparison with name-dropping, sharing photos seems like no big deal. But images – though they're everywhere online – can be privacy landmines.

Easily available facial recognition software that sometimes works even when part of the face is covered can instantly undo seemingly reasonable safeguards for maintaining obscurity for the students pictured. And even if technology couldn’t connect all kinds of dots that schools weren’t intended to help link, the human element still would remain a strong consideration. Students, parents, and a host of others will read all of the data flowing back-and-forth, adding tags and re-tweeting additional building blocks of personal information, and schools should consider the questions this inevitable cycle raises.

For example, schools currently must offer families the opportunity to “opt out” of directory information, sometimes with several levels of specificity. But have they ensured that any faculty or staff using a social media account has access to those lists and clear understanding of the limitations that have been placed on what can be disclosed about individual students?

Furthermore, how should schools prepare for what may happen to the information once they post it on the Internet? It’s naive to believe publicly accessible social media posts are one-way broadcasts. All too often they can fuel aggressive dialog and rants. A well-intentioned administrator might share information purely to keep folks informed about something most would consider worth knowing. But in the hands of a student’s jealous peer or a teacher’s disgruntled student, that post could morph into directly worded attacks, abusive criticism, or intentional trolling. That’s why a school needs a robust social media policy that includes nuanced guidelines for determining when and how to respond to unfortunate yet foreseeable privacy challenges.

Then, there’s the basic problem of community management. In order for social media to be most effective, a community of users (“friends” or “followers”) needs to be established and engaged. This means schools need to make careful decisions about whom to follow back, what to comment on, and how to respond to conversations. Failing to reciprocate a “follow” or “like” might not seem like a big deal, but it could leave students feeling under-valued or parents disenfranchised. Indeed, frequent interactions with parents or students who are most active online might have the same effects on those families who do not participate regularly in social media channels, making them feel left out. This could particularly be true for families without home Internet access, or the money for mobile devices for their children.

“Following” or “liking” individual accounts can unleash other problems, too. Once a student or parent account is linked, all kinds of deeply personal – or at least otherwise not readily accessible information – can be brought to an administrator or teacher’s attention. As with all these hypothetical interactions, this is a double-edged sword. Teachers might become aware of home life or personal circumstances that enable them to better directly support and respond to a student’s needs. And yet, administrators could learn of student behavior that’s occurring outside of school that they feel ethically bound to share with parents, other students, or even with law enforcement. That these posts were made fully- or semi-publicly by a student doesn’t change the fact that schools are government actors charged with serious protective responsibilities, and questions can remain as to what they’ll do with all of the collected data.

To be sure, these are novel questions. There’s no quick and easy answer, widely accepted standard, or surefire educational best practice that’s readily available to address them. As a minimum starting point, administrators should acknowledge these and related difficulties through careful wording in their consent documents: the forms parents and guardians already sign to grant schools permission to share information – including images – about their sons and daughters. Blanket permissions that don’t highlight new and possibly unexpected social uses, along with the new risks involved, will not represent meaningful informed consent.

Realistically, however, administrators cannot be expected to identify every possible circumstance that deserves careful thought. Too many disclosures means information overload, and that will lead parents to tune out, just like when they skip over wordy online Terms of Service contracts or Privacy Policies. It’s a tough balancing act, requiring thought and effort to properly finesse meaningful processes.

Another concern is that well-intentioned school initiatives, such as offering detailed permissions, can appear to be steps in the right direction, but, may just add further complications. Letting parents and guardians sign off on invitation-only social media accounts with strong privacy settings is a great way to enhance autonomy. But providing layers of choice is easier in theory than in practice. The more options available, the harder and more expensive it is for the school to oversee, much less ensure compliance.

The questions raised here are significant, and yet they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Amongst other things, hard decisions remain for how to deal effectively with how students feel about an online presence they didn’t create and can’t control, as well as affiliates – such as PTAs and student newspapers – struggling to use social media responsibly. But since the most savvy social media people at schools often have the most desensitized privacy instincts, we need to deliberately and conscientiously address these questions now.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @EvanSelingerBrenda Leong is senior counsel and director of operations at the Future of Privacy Forum. Follow her on Twitter @BrendaKLeongBill Fitzgerald is director of the privacy initiative at Common Sense Media. Follow him on Twitter at @funnymonkey.


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