Earlier this year I delivered a further cyberbullying guidance document on behalf of Childnet International for the UK Government's Department for Children, Schools and Families. The Guidance follows up (and designed to compliment) cyberbullying guidance, a comprehensive document that formed part of the Safe To Learn: Embedding anti-bullying work in schools suite of advice. While the initial document was really well received both within the UK & internationally, teachers unions and associations were increasingly being asked to deal with school employee cyberbullying cases – in which the staff member was the person being victimised. I welcomed the opportunity to produce further guidance which would both support employees in term of basic digital literacy information and encourage employers to meet their statutory obligations. The document set out, ambitiously, to encourage policy and procedure be put in place for preventing and dealing with cyberbullying as a whole school community issue – which includes meeting and recognising the specific needs, rights and responsibilities of employees. In no other area of harassment would it be acceptable for an employee to be expected to deal with cases that rose within the work place on their own – yet the reports from school staff included cases where cyberbullying was not taken seriously or understood, and where they had been expected to sort out situations for themselves.
Cyberbullying: Supporting School Staff (PDF) was released in April this year (Google doc version here). I've been talking about the document a lot recently, and I want to just explore in a little more detail the thinking behind the advice given to school employees regarding friending students in social networking services. The actual text is (with my emphasis):
‘Friending’ refers to the act of giving contacts permission to view information or contact you within web-based services. The terminology will vary from service to service – ‘Friends’ may be called contacts or connections, for example. Most social sites enable you to give different levels of access and set privacy levels on your own content and activity. These functions will vary from service to service but typically include:
• Information that is only available to the account holder
• Information that is accessible by contacts on the account
holder’s approved list, and
• Information that is made publicly available, either within
the service or across the whole of the internet.
‘Friends’ does not necessarily refer in this case to people who are your actual friends, although you may choose to restrict your connections to that. ’Friends’ in this context may also be work colleagues, family members, and people that you have met online.
If you have a social networking account, do not friend pupils or add them to your contact lists. You may be giving them access to personal information and allowing them to contact you inappropriately. They may also be giving you access to their personal information and activities
So the text above outlines three basic levels of permissions granularity that can be found on most sites, gives a definition of friending, and very explicitly says don't friend pupils. This is explicitly prescriptive advice, based on the case studies reviewed during the document negotiations, and an implicit understanding that the school staff accounts referred to are either personal, or contain elements of personal activity (I previously posted on a definition of three basic online identities, characterised as personal, professional, and organisational).
The approach taken then – don't friend pupils – reflects the kind of boundaries between staff and learners that we'd expect to see in offline behavior. You wouldn't expect a teacher to give a school aged pupil their home phone number, show them pictures of their friends or regale them with the weekends social exploits. Obviously friending isn't the only issue here – managing publicly available information so that you are comfortable with what co-workers, learners and employers can access about you is also addressed in the document. The research and anecdotal evidence indicates that we operate within social network services as if we were in a closed, private world. This isn't naive – I think it's a necessary fiction which makes social networking services human spaces. The do not friend advice is there to reinforce the message that private online is typically back of a post-card private, especially if we are within environments where we're not entirely sure who has permission to see what (*cough*Facebook*cough). It also reflects the leakiness of our online identities, the way in which the personal is often hand in hand with the professional.
What the advice isn't trying to do is to put anyone off evaluating social networking services to see if they could support learning & teaching effectively. The advice goes on to state:
If you want to use web-based social networking sites for a class or for the whole school, use a service that doesn’t give contacts access to personal information and updates, or allows collaboration without requiring permissions.
Alternatively ask pupils to create new, work-focused accounts for themselves, and run them as they would an online portfolio or CV.
You can find more information and advice about Social Network Services at www.digizen.org/socialnetworking.
13 thoughts on “Should you friend your students? The short answer is no”
*cough*Facebook*cough* does let you see what your profile looks like as any of your friends, though not as any other logged in user.
How sad it is that “we” don’t think teachers should be able to share any of their personal lives with their pupils. My best teachers shared at least some elements of themselves with us, and our education was, I believe, richer for it. Apart from anything else, it helped with learning how to negotiate boundaries and what was, and wasn’t, inappropriate to share. Frankly, I think it is hardly surprising that more recent generations seem to have more difficulty with social skills if teachers really aren’t able to model this sort of thing for them. Fortunately, I know quite a few teachers who do share – but I guess they will get weeded out soon enough.
Thanks for the comment Pat.
There’s a whole bunch of issues here. One is the level of national digital literacy amongst school employees. The guidance is designed as a resource for all school employees, not just teaching staff, although I am not implying that senior management team members or support staff have significantly different levels of digital literacy or differing staff development needs in this area.
One is the way that cyberbullying, unlike other forms of bullying, has a significantly different perpetrator/victim profile – it isn’t dependent on offline power issues. A lot of the cases I reviewed involved staff members sharing personal information with students which was subsequently horribly misused.
Nowhere does the advice say that staff should withhold all personal information from their learners. Rather it acknowledges the deeply personal nature of many peoples online activity and attempts to manage very complex issues about abuse.
How we manage the personal and the professional online is an emergent set of social conventions which we are still negotiating in terms of employer liability, employee rights, and broader social responsibilities. This guidance forms part of that and hopefully supports the more nuanced discussion around the issues that need to take place.
Whilst I understand what you are saying regarding privacy and support making sure that staff are fully aware of what they share I do feel that we are becoming a society that is afraid and suspicious of everyone else.
I think we all miss out when this happens and while there are bad things that happen I don’t think we should become so fearful of everyone else that we think they are ‘out to get us’. Trust and sharing add so many positive things to life, I hope we don’t reach the stage where we don’t talk to anyone unless we can see their police check first.
I totally agree. Partly this advice is written in a cultural context where employees are increasingly prescriptive about what their expectations are about their employees online behavior. People should be allowed to have fun online and not constantly have to think about a professional persona, unless they want to. That balance, particularly in terms of current and prospective employers is one that’s currently and critically being negotiated right now.
It’s also written in recognition of how seriously cyberbullying can effect the lives, families and careers of some individuals. I’d be negligent, let alone naive, if I’d have negotiated this cyberbullying advice on the basis that society is fundamentally lovely.
This isn’t legislation – it’s guidance. In an ideal world both individuals and whole school communities would consider, discuss and question what would work best for them.
I think what really worries me is where guidance (which is good) is increasingly interpreted by organisations as legislation. You’ve seen it in so many areas (including when you can take photos of your own children) that it sometimes seems as though the world has gone mad.
I agree that you can’t offer advice which assumes that everything in the garden is lovely I just wish people would see this as guidance and work out an effective plan for everyone.
Oh well, I guess we can hope that the elusive compound known as common sense becomes available again soon 🙂
I agree that it is important that people are educated about potential risks. Indeed, I often advise teachers I know to be a bit more careful with their online presence than they currently are – some I know are a lot more open than even I think is wise. Unfortunately, that advice is chiefly necessary, however, because I know what various schools and education authorities enact as policy (and worse, what they pull forth from thin air as examples of ‘misconduct’ even when they have no policy).
My fear about this guidance is that schools and local authorities will use it as an excuse to further restrict the private lives of teachers. We already have some schools which tell teachers they cannot associate online with the parents of their pupils. Some authorities forbid their teachers to use blogs. This sort of policy undermines the teachers’ rights, and, by proxy, I would argue it also undermines the rights of their pupils.
Of course, just as in the police force, there is a way around it – teachers can create profiles under pseudonyms. The ones most likely to do this are the ones we, as a society, are probably least likely to want doing so – but it is also a valid response by teachers who want to be able to provide the best learning experience for their pupils.
I honestly think it would be much better to give guidance which says:
No employer should insist that an employee should use their own online identities for work purposes.
Where an employee builds an online identity for work purposes, they should have the right to take that ID with them, or to link it with their personal ones as they see fit (except in a few exceptional cases).
Where an employee has an online identity with which they engage with pupils or pupils’ parents, they should register that ID with the employer, so that inappropriate behaviour on anybody’s part can be quickly identified and action taken.
The same applies to students/pupils – there should be no compulsion, and rights over the identity should be in the hands of the individual it represents.
We had a discussion about this in a Googlewave started by Pat about digital identity where some of us exchanged our FB stories. For what it is worth here’s mine. I joined FB about 3 years ago (I think) to join a Leeds Alumni group but nothing really happened and I forgot all about it. Then about 2 years ago I started getting friend requests from some of my students. Since I was not then using FB for social purposes – none of my extended family or friends were using it – I accepted the student requests and started getting wall posts and DMs asking questions about my courses, course work, readings, assessment and so on. What surprised me is that these were mainly students who had not previously emailed me or come to any of my ‘open door’ sessions. Some recent anecdotal evidence suggests that quite a few of our students are hesitant to approach academic staff and are not comfortable doing so. It seems that some at least are happy to approach and communicate on more neutral territory or perhaps they see it as their territory. Anyway, as word got around more and more students friended me and it has become a fairly routine communication channel. I have never and will never send send a friend request to a student. Also I have tended to use wall comments and DMs rather differently. It has seemed rather incongruous when I have replied in some detail to a query about, say, SPSS and then finding my reply interspersed with other comments on the student’s wall about gigs or parties they have been to and what they had for breakfast that morning and with whom. On the other hand the wall-to-wall question and answer may be of interest to another student. What I tend to do now post a short wall comment and then the more detailed response via a DM. The original question is viewable on my wall and other students can contact me about it if they wish. I can’t say this has resulted in much more work for me as the informal feedback I get on students’ understanding, or lack of it, is useful anyway and I often reproduce the questions and answers in some form in the VLE for other students. If students find it convenient to communicate with me in FB, then fine. They spend a lot of time in FB anyway! And I would say that it has generally had a beneficial affect on my relationship with the students and helped develop more of a community feel on campus too. It may not work this way for everyone of course. I appreciate that this is specific to 18+ uni students and there are other important issues concenring younger students.
On thing that has happeneds is that by now quite a few family members and friends are also FB friends as well. The fact that I have many student followers does have an affect on what I post to friends and family and I rarely use FB for sharing photos, for instance. We started a private FB group for the family but over time this has fallen into disuse and we all use our walls etc. now. I’m not sure what, ir any, lessons, there are to glean from this, but help yourself!
There may be (a few) exceptions but in general I think this is pretty good advice for social networks that are essentially ‘personal’ in nature.
Speaking as an ex-chair of governors of a primary school, I suggest that (some) staff shouldn’t friend their chair of governors either! 🙂
Good piece, Josie…and some nice comments too.
I’ve recently run into this issue but in a different form. The primary school my 3 boys go to have created a policy and had teachers sign an agreement that they won’t ‘friend’ parents of children on social network sites. That’s right…teachers & parents. Adults.
I questioned this and after having to explain (several times) that my issue was about teacher/parent not teacher/child – it finally started to emerge that their actions were in response to advice they had received (still not quite sure where from though) on eSafety and ‘Safeguarding Our Children’.
However, the Deputy Head (the Head didn’t have a clue what I was on about) kind of flip-flopped around on their exact reasoning. On one hand it was in case children saw what teachers & parents had written on screen. On another the issue of bullying/abuse from parents was mentioned…albeit briefly.
But for me both of those smack of fear, mistrust and basically lack of understanding – or, indeed, willingness to address the bigger picture.
Picking up on ‘Virtualewit’s’ point about advice being handled like legislation, the loudest reasoning behind the school’s action was “we’re covering our arse”.
Now, I know this doesn’t fit *exactly* with this conversation but it is clearly connected. We seem to be living in a country that continues to enforce control and nannying on us, be it through legislation or ‘advice’. After a while the whole scene becomes so tangled and murky that we [will] end up with everyone engaged in a Massive Exercise in Arse Covering (I’m claiming that acronym as mine…MEAC!) 😉
Don’t get me wrong, I’m obviously well aware that this is – in many cases – untrodden ground and as such requires a supportive and helping hand to those in positions that will be affected by the digital in ways completely new to their professions. But please…where is the common sense element going to come from? How are we going to balance the message of the internet as a place of freedom & opportunity with The Internet As A Place Of Fear & Mistrust!!…?
Thanks to Andy for the comment and to Terry for taking the time to share his own experience.
Bit worried about the suggestion from Pat that “Where an employee has an online identity with which they engage with pupils or pupils’ parents, they should register that ID with the employer, so that inappropriate behavior on anybody’s part can be quickly identified and action taken.”
– the logistics and privacy issues here are a really worrying – I also think that schools are just not in a position (and shouldn’t be) to regulate or monitor the personal online activity of employees. I actually think the advice deals with this more effectively by asking staff to be prudent about their online activity, and either not friending students on accounts where personal activity takes place, or alternatively “use a service that doesn’t give contacts access to personal information and updates, or allows collaboration without requiring permissions.”
Thanks for your comment too Mark. I agree, and one of the fundemental issues with dealing directly with cyberbullying is that it’s inappropriate to frame it in entirely positive terms. However, all the work I’ve done for childnet has been explicit about the huge benefits of engaging with technology positively and responsibly. In fact, one of the key areas for preventing cyberbullying is “promoting the positive use of technology”, and interestingly the area where staff that I’ve worked with in implementing the guidance have the most difficulty with.
I’ve seen some horrible cases of staff being cyberbullied by students, parents and colleagues, although I’m guessing friending other members of staff isn’t forbidden by your school.
Let me be clear here. Not friending individual students on personal accounts is a precautionary measure designed to protect learners and staff members. However, if it’s the only measure you take, it isn’t sufficient and it doesn’t constitute an employer satisfying the duty to “ensure, so far as reasonably
practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of
all employees”, nor does it constitute an adequate approach to safeguarding pupils.
It fundamentally doesn’t replace the need for staff and student digital literacy education.
Effective cyberbullying prevention involves a whole school approach to policy and practice(ie not just someone deciding on and informing the rest of the community about some new policies, or the inclusion of the word cyberbullying in some existing policies). It also involves a range of activity which at a minimum would include: whole school discussions about what cyberbullying is and what it’s impacts are, reviewing existing reporting routes, ensuring frameworks are in place to effectively deal with reporting, either from pupils or staff members, ensuring monitoring and recording is in place and promoting the positive use of technology.
I have found your article on maintaining separate online identities very useful as it helped crystallise an incipient, yet naggine worry I had when I began to use Facebook. I have two separate FB identities, the one strictly for personal contacts. The other I use to connect with the high school learners I teach, and past pupils. I have also used it to provide learners with a forum for presenting work on famous authors for an English project. Your article on online identites helped me to realise that I need to be ruthless about maintaining the distinction between my two FB accounts. However, I had never thought that I might be the victim of cyberbullying. But what I have discovered about connecting with pupils is that it provides me with a forum to extend my role as educator/mentor to kids who are relatively cyber-naive (like me?). So, for example, if I come across a useful, cautionary post about cyber-behaviour, I link it to my pupil FB. I feed through posts from ‘Inside Facebook’. I posted a connection to your article on online identities. I was also able to use FB to encourage one of my learners to think critically about whether her very public, FB wall-post ranting and raving about one of her teachers was really a good idea. So, while I am grateful for the alert about possibly being a victim of cyber-bullying, I think I will continue to friend my pupils – by invitation only – and see it as an extension of my role as an educator.
I don’t know if it’s useful but this is the kind of sticky situation that homelessness support workers have been facing for years – both online and in ‘real life’. Homeless people are adults and are much likely to occupy the shared social spaces than children. (I’m not directly comparing schoolchildren and homeless people – merely pointing out that teachers and support workers have twin roles as teachers/advisers with an element of pastoral care – necessitating a convention/code of professional boundaries.)
Whenever there have been moves to warn workers about the potential for abuse/bullying, people have responded by complaining about over-regulation – and appeals to commonsense.
This is natural. A good support worker is a problem-solver who knows that relationship-building is about empathy and mutual respect. The same is true of educators.
We’ve found it more helpful to approach the problem from the support perspective. Talking about boundaries as an extension of Safeguarding legislation leads to quasi-legal CYA-babble and accusations of jobsworthiness. Crossing boundaries (and ‘friending’ somebody is definitely crossing some kind of boundary) is likely to affect the ability of anyone to conduct a professional relationship.
We use three rules of thumb as a guide:
1. Does it feel right? Clearly, for some of the commenters above it does.
2. Would you do it for everybody? If you wouldn’t, then it’s probably not a healthy thing to do. Everybody means everybody now and in the future, unfortunately.
3. COULD you do it for everybody? There’s no way that an educator can maintain ‘friend’ relationships with all their charges.
I have a couple of identities I use on the web. And I know other people who do the same. If you’re even vaguely techy, it’s easy to find out the other IDs. (Comments, for example, are one place where it’s extraordinarily hard to control your ID – use a service like BackType and you’ll soon find this out.)
The interesting thing about ‘crossing boundaries’ is that it not only affects that particular relationship but ALL the relationships a professional has.
Sorry, if it’s of little relevance (or inappropriate to make the comparison) but was interested and thought I’d dip a toe in.
I know I’m a bit late with this, but I am alarmed by the advice. There is a huge amount of suspicion directed at social networking in teaching, often perpetuated by people who don’t use it and have little idea of how it can be managed appropriately. I teach 16 – 19s and went on FB a couple of years ago, my institution still has no policy on this and so I had to make the decision without advice. I decided, much like the contributor above, that it should be all or none, no favouritism. I have lists, I do isolate some of my information, but on the whole I don’t post anything that isn’t already available, or I couldn’t stand by in public. As I type away on a snow day, I have alerted some of my students to a Forum I have posted on our VLE, if the VLE were better networked I could probably dispense with the FB contacts – but it isn’t. Finally, when students leave they remain in contact through FB and that is really useful, they often contact me either as a friend or through the message system to update on their careers or get advice, so far my experience has been positive – but I do fear the prescription of the institution. I have not always been a teacher, I write books and I blog, this benefits the institution I work for and I would regard it as censorship if they attempted to proscribe without, at the very least, negotiating with me.