Should you friend your students? The short answer is no

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.