Monday, 12 January 2009

Should teachers and pupils be ‘Friends’ on Social Networking Sites?

Traditional, established and agreed boundaries between staff and pupils are being blurred by the way in which Social Networking Sites operate. Many teachers, particularly younger members of staff - who have grown up with social networking being an everyday part of their lives, have Facebook profiles and are accustomed to interacting with the people they meet "offline" through the "online" medium of a social networking site. So should teachers and pupils be ‘Friends’ on Social networking sites?

On the one hand, we might take the view that all contact between staff and pupils in this forum is inappropriate.
  • Teachers are expected to keep a professional distance from the pupils whom they teach.
  • There should be a clear separation of the private social lives of teachers and that of pupils.
  • It would not be appropriate for a teacher to go clubbing with sixth formers, and it is wrong for teachers to reveal too many details of their private life with them.
  • There is no need for "social networking" to go on between staff and pupils.
  • With few exceptions, there is little educational benefit from teachers being friends with pupils.
On the other hand, we might take the view that having contact with pupils on a Social Networking site should be encouraged under certain circumstances:
  • It is important that teachers are seen to have a presence on Social networking sites - this gives them greater credibility when discussing Internet-related issues.
  • In some subjects, such as Media Studies and PSHE, it might be wholly appropriate to engage with young people online in this way, as part of the course, or to help them better understand issues of internet safety.
  • Teachers should be allowed to exercise their professional judgment as to what personal information they choose to share with pupils, afterall they do this in the classroom daily.
Certainly it would be unwise for staff to allow pupils access to any information which would compromise their position and authority as a teacher in the school. However, this is sometimes more difficult than one might first expect.

There are basic Internet privacy and safety issues when using social networking sites that apply to both pupils and to staff alike. However careful a teacher is about the material he posts on his site, the problem with Facebook is that it is very easy for other "friends" to post pictures on a teacher's Facebook page through the "tagging" feature. Take the following scenario.
A teacher [let's call him, "John"] goes to a University reunion party. During the party a friend, "Peter", takes a number of photos of the John - dancing with girl friends, having a beer with former drinking mates, or worse. Peter posts them on his own Facebook site and "tags" John in the pictures. These pictures now appear on John's Facebook site. One of John's Facebook "friends", who happens to be one of John's pupils, downloads the pictures from the site before John has even had a chance to view/edit/ remove them. The pupil then emails the picture to other school friends and prints the pictures and pins them up around school.
Clearly there are "limited profile" features within Facebook, which would prevent this happening. It is possible to run a Facebook account on two levels: with wide access to true friends and a much more restricted access to "acquaintances", but it does require a sophisticated and disciplined approach to the management of a social-networking site to achieve this.

So should Schools get involved in this issue? If so, how?

There is nothing inherently wrong, immoral or unprofessional about teachers communicating with pupils through social networking sites, thus it is inappropriate for schools to attempt to restrict the use of these sites. There is also a pragmatic argument that, since it impossible for Schools to police how their staff interact with pupils in cyberspace, they should not get involved in this area.

However, I do believe that Schools do have a responsibility to protect the pupils and staff in its care, but this should not be done through Draconian and unenforceable policies. Rather they have an important educational role to play. Schools must ensure that both pupils and staff have the knowledge and skills to protect their privacy and to remain safe when on social networking sites. Thus both teachers and pupils will be able to maintain appropriate professional relationships and distance whether online or in the classroom.

For more on staying safe on a social networking site, see the


  1. This is such a tricky issue, and I think you balance the pros and cons for both sides of the debate well.

    As a Media teacher I do use Facebook, but, at the point where all students acquire their own school email address, most probably I would stop. It would certainly make my life easier, not to mention being a safer environment, to run all electronic communication, whether it be email, instant chat, blogs, wikis or Forums, through a school-mediated environment.

    On the other hand, I do email students on Facebook should I see what I deem to be inappropriate material posted. I do this not in a censorious way, but more along the lines of, 'have you considered what the consequences migh be if employer X or friend Y were to see this?' Often, students are grateful to have received some on the spot guidance. Nonetheless, I use Facebook to communicate only, avoiding looking through photo albums and the like.

    I have removed contact details and other personal information from my profile, and have noticed other colleagues have done the same. As you say, a limited profile is a safer profile.

    And all of this should be preceded with an educational talk about who the 'real' owners of Facebook are. The following posting might be informative:

  2. Ultimately Facebook is a site that is designed primarily for social-networking and I suspect that it is best used for that purpose. Blogs, Wikis and email all allow teachers to interact with pupils with similar functionality without the risks of confusing the relationship between pupils and teachers. We do need to warn young people of the dangers of these sites.

    The most scary aspect is that the terms and conditions state that when we use Facebook they can make copies of everything we put there and use it in anyway they see fit, and keep copies, even when the site has been closed down - see User Content Posted on this Site

  3. I have a lot of pupils as friends on Facebook and I find it the easiest way to communicate with them, especially as a Housemaster. However, I agree that this would not be necessary if we had a list of student emails. I also use it to keep in touch with former pupils and to keep my finger on the pulse of the Sixth Form.