Thankfully, Facebook is soon going to restructure the way it displays privacy settings to users. Currently, those settings are scattered across multiple pages, and it is a chore for individuals to customize them to their liking. When we talk to elementary, middle, and high-schoolers, we ask about those settings – and have found that very few youth take extensive time to lock down their Facebook page on a granular level. Rather, most simply go with the default privacy settings – which are much more open than I would personally prefer. Hopefully by consolidating these settings into one page, it’ll be much easier for users to run through each privacy option and make appropriate selections based on what content they want to reveal (and how it is done). Even more important is that they carve out the necessary time to do it – something we highly encourage. Take the fifteen or so minutes to fully understand what each setting means, and then customize them to your comfort level. Overall, I am quite pleased about this.
Another issue, though, has to do with Facebook’s soon-to-be-released Transition Tool, which will subtly suggest to (encourage?) users to make some of their content available (or shared to) “Everyone” with the reasoning that friends will find you more easily (which is true). However, it’s likely this content will also be indexed by Google and other search engines – which is beneficial to Facebook as they try to compete with Twitter as the premier source of real-time information and status updates being posted and distributed by the masses. However, it’s more palatable for my Twitter page to be found by search engines and individuals that I don’t know at all; it’s less acceptable for content on my Facebook page to be similarly found. To each his own, but just make sure you completely know what you’re doing. After all, it is *your* information out there – and it’s going to be out there for a really, really long time. I’ll share more of my thoughts after I get to play around with the new tool.
Here’s a recent query I received from an educator who I have worked with in the past. I thought her question and my response would be of interest to others so I am posting both here. Does your school district have a policy regarding cyberbullying or Facebook? How about cyberbullying on Facebook?
Question: “The reason for my email is that we have recently had issues with Facebook brought to our attention by parents. Cyberbullying is taking place among our 8th graders and it seems to be affecting the classroom environment. The principal and I are wondering if you have any sample policies that might help us as we are looking to establish some type of policy quickly to address this problem.”
Response: I am sorry to hear that you are facing problems with Facebook. We don’t have a sample policy per se, but we suggest elements that you might want to include in your policy. The problem really isn’t isolated to Facebook. That is, you don’t need a “Facebook Policy.” If you tried to be that specific, you would have to update your policy every 6 months or so as different Web sites come in and out of popularity. You just need a general policy that will cover the kinds of behaviors that are detrimental to your school environment. You have our book, and you should definitely revisit chapter 5 – especially pages 118-126 to see how your existing policy could be improved based on these suggestion. Essentially, your policy needs to state that any behavior that disrupts the school environment is subject to discipline.
As I mentioned in my presentation to your folks, you might want to see if you can convene a group of staff, parents, and even students to review your existing policy and to make recommendations for updating it based on these new behaviors that are emerging. This shouldn’t be a very large group – perhaps 2 or 3 members from each of the above groups – otherwise it may be difficult to get everyone to agree. This group can then inform your school’s overall approach. They can make recommendations additions to the policy and for appropriate disciplinary sanctions based on violations of the policy. I know you are looking for a quick fix (aren’t we all!), but taking the time to develop comprehensive policy, and involving parents and students, will yield dividends in the long run. It will be easier to sell the policy to parents if key parents are involved in the process. And the students can help to make sure the policy is comprehensive and realistic.
By the way, in general, if you can demonstrate that the behaviors are substantially disrupting your school environment, even though those behaviors are occurring away from school, the courts have upheld disciplinary sanctions. And that legal perspective is essentially directed at public schools. Since you are a private school, you have much more latitude in basically doing what you think is appropriate. That said, it is still important to have a good policy that parents and even students can get behind.
There was an article published in the New York Times last week which discussed the case of Katherine Evans. Katherine was displeased with her high school English teacher and posted about this displeasure on Facebook: “To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred.”
Katherine apparently removed the post only after a few days, but a couple of months later was suspended by her school for “cyberbullying.” [point of order: we typically do not refer to online harassment involving an adult as cyberbullying] From the media reports, Katherine’s actions neither constituted a threat nor resulted in a disruption at school—the two common features of cyberbullying incidents that would warrant a significant formal response from the school. Did Katherine cross the line? Without question her actions were inappropriate. Were they subject to discipline at school? Maybe—but probably not suspension. Students are allowed to criticize teachers and other school officials, again, as long as it is not threatening or disruptive to the school. This can be a fine line indeed. It will be interesting to see how the courts rule in this case. My gut is telling me that the school could have handled this case differently, but I’m sure we do not have all of the details yet. Stay tuned.
This story out of New Berlin, WI, reports about very extreme case of cyberbullying. It is reported that an 18-year-old male student posed as a female student on Facebook and tricked other male students into sending him nude pictures or videos of themselves. There were at least 31 male students who apparently did so, and the offender in this case also reportedly coerced several of them to engage in sexual acts with him by threatening that he would post the pictures online and/or send them to others in the school.
We have certainly heard more and more stories lately of teens taking naked pictures of themselves or others and distributing them electronically. Like anything, it is important to educate students about the risks inherent in engaging in these kinds of activities. For example, teens all around the country are being charged with possession or distribution of child pornography for these behaviors–not to mention the social implications associated with this. By the way, here is a short, but humorous video that can be used to educate youth about this phenomenon.
Ok, now that we have discussed some of the risks and benefits of social networking, I want to return to an issue that we have discussed before on this blog. And that is whether or not any one particular social networking environment is “safer” than the others. And if so, how? When I talk to adults I often hear them say that they would never let their children on MySpace, but they allow them on Facebook. MySpace certainly received the weight of the negative attention that was directed toward online social networking over the last couple of years, but again, in essence Facebook isn’t any different. Or is it?
We are definitely seeing a trend of adolescents migrating away from MySpace to Facebook. In our presentations to students I we always ask how many of the attendees have profiles on MySpace and/or Facebook and the ratio has begun to shift in favor of Facebook. I even find this to be true among my friends; even though I have been on Facebook for a couple of years, I have received more friend requests in the last several weeks than ever before (whereas hardly anyone contacts me on MySpace anymore).
What are your thoughts? Have you also seen this trend away from MySpace and toward Facebook? What do you think explains this? Do you think there is a perception among the public that Facebook is safer than MySpace?