Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This fact sheet provides information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students.
Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/FriendingStudentsonFacebook.pdf
Is it Ok for Educators to Connect with Students on Facebook?
Some of you may have seen that we posted a new fact sheet earlier in the week with information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media. This has been a topic of intense debate on this blog for years and we would love to hear your opinions. So, before we go any further, we have a quick poll for you to tell us how you feel about whether it is appropriate for educators to connect with students:
Now, take some time to look over our fact sheet and let us know what you think. Post your comments below about whether you think it is a good idea for educators to be connected with their students on social media or not. What are your concerns? How could it be valuable? Are you using social media in your schools to connect students with staff?
Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying
“Catfishing,” at least in the online world, refers to the practice of setting up a fictitious online profile, most often for the purpose of luring another into a fraudulent romantic relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines a “catfish” as: “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” So, to “catfish someone” is to set up a fake social media profile with the goal of duping that person into falling for the false persona. And if this has happened to you, you my friend have been “catfished.”
Of course people have been falsifying information online for decades and users have been putting fake information on social media profiles at least since MySpace launched in 2003, probably before. This became more widely known as catfishing after a 2010 documentary film highlighted the real-world ramifications of online relationships. In late 2012, MTV launched a reality TV show to capitalize on the interest in this activity.
A few weeks ago Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o became the poster child for catfishing when he was the apparent subject of one’s online angling. As a public figure, with a prominent social media footprint he was a prime target. Te’o developed an online relationship with someone he knew as Lennay Kekua. It is difficult to know how deep the relationship was, but he did refer to her as his “girlfriend” and mentioned repeatedly that he loved her.
Te’o amassed a wide following when it was learned that his grandmother and girlfriend (Kekua) died on the same day early in the 2012 football season. As a Michigan State football fan, I became interested in the Te’o story because his inspired performance during his first game after the deaths led to a crushing defeat of my beloved Green and White. Soon, it seemed, much of America was watching Te’o and the Fighting Irish.
While it has been confirmed that his grandmother did in fact die, his girlfriend did not. Media investigations revealed that she had never existed in the first place. In mid-January the sportsblog Deadspin broke the story that Kekua was a fictitious online persona created by a friend of Te’o's. From the information we currently know, it appears most likely that Te’o was an unsuspecting victim, though some question his innocence and suggest this was all just an elaborate publicity stunt. In a statement released to the media, Te’o has maintained that he was a target: “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.” Whether a victim or a co-conspirator, the Te’o tribulations have led to renewed interest in a form of cyberbullying that has been perpetrated against others for many years.
Catfishing as Cyberbullying
Misleading another on social media with the intent to cause harm is not new. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier began an online relationship with a boy she knew as Josh Evans. For almost a month, Megan corresponded with this boy exclusively online because he said he didn’t have a phone and was homeschooled. One day in October of that year, Megan received a message from Josh on her MySpace profile saying “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” This was followed by bulletins being posted through MySpace calling Megan “fat” and a “slut.” After seeing the messages, Megan became distraught and ran up into her room. A few minutes later, Megan’s mother Tina found her daughter hanging in her bedroom closet. Though she rushed her daughter to the hospital, Megan died the next day.
Six weeks after their daughter’s death, the Meier family learned that the boy with whom Megan had been corresponding never existed. Josh Evans (and his online profile) was created by Lori Drew, a neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends. She created the profile as a way to spy on what Megan was saying about her daughter. Drew was eventually acquitted in federal court for her role in Megan’s death.
Another, more extreme example, is the case of Anthony Stancl, a New Berlin, Wisconsin, 18-year-old who in 2009 impersonated two girls (“Kayla” and “Emily”) on Facebook. He befriended and formed online romantic relationships with a number of boys in his high school (again, while posing and interacting as these two girls). He then convinced at least 31 of those boys to send him nude pictures or videos of themselves. As if that weren’t bad enough, Stancl – still posing as a girl and still communicating through Facebook – tried to convince more than half to meet with a male friend and let him perform sexual acts on them. If they refused, “she” told them that the pictures and videos would be released for all to see. Seven boys actually submitted to this horrific request, and allowed Stancl to perform sex acts on them, or they performed sex acts on him. He took numerous pictures of these encounters with his cell phone, and the police eventually found over 300 nude images of male teens on his computer. He was charged with five counts of child enticement, two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child, two counts of third-degree sexual assault, possession of child pornography, and repeated sexual assault of the same child and received a 15-year sentence in prison in early 2010.
Anytime someone uses technology in a way that causes repeated harm to another, it can be classified as cyberbullying. Setting up a fake online profile and communicating with someone for the purpose of tricking them into developing a romantic relationship – only to break up with or otherwise harm them – is wrong. It also violates Facebook’s terms of service: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission” and “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.”
That said, some people use pseudonyms or alter-egos online to safeguard their identity. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for doing this and as long as your behaviors do not hurt others, or mislead them in a way that causes harm to them, this is probably just fine. It really comes down to intent: Are you masking your identity to protect yourself or to cause harm to others? It is one thing to be protective of your real identity for personal privacy reasons, but it is another thing entirely to create an alternative identity for the purpose of humiliating, harassing, or hurting someone else.
Some might argue that catfishing is harmless Internet fun and that people should know better than to enter into any significant relationship with another person they only know digitally. It is true that people need to take care not to put themselves into situations where they could fall for someone who doesn’t really exist. However, that does not make it OK to use technology to mislead someone, and leads to a “victim-blaming” mentality that gets us nowhere. To be sure, everyone needs to be skeptical and cautious when entering into online relationships. Those who do should consider using Skype, Facetime, or some other video-chatting service that will allow you to see and interact in real-time with the person you are communicating with. You should be suspicious if the other person continues to be hesitant about wanting you to see them in real life or online. Also, don’t give out too much personal information, especially early on, and never go by yourself to meet someone in person who you only know from online. Go with a friend – or better yet a group of friends. They can protect you if something turns out to be not what it seems.
It is easy to be blinded by feelings of affection, especially when someone is giving you more positive attention than you have ever gotten from anyone else before. Just remember to stop and think about the possibility that someone might be taking advantage of you and proceed with the utmost caution. As they say, if something (or in this case someone) seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Fake Memorial Pages on Facebook, Pranks, and Cyberbullying
Canadian Cyberbullying Educator and Speaker Lissa Albert has been looking into the phenomenon of Fake Memorial Pages on Facebook, and whether these should be construed as simple, harmless pranks – or if they can be a form of harassment and, ultimately, cyberbullying with the significant potential for emotional and psychological harm. We wanted to make sure our readers knew what was going on, and of course provide them an opportunity to weigh in. As such, I asked her to write up her perspective and findings, which is below. Feel free to contact her with any followup!
Prank: (noun) A practical joke or mischievous act.
What is a prank? The dictionary says it’s a “joke.” Or a “mischievous act.” One would think pranks are not serious. However, in this day and age of technology, pranks are fast becoming ways to harass, torment, and cyberbully people online.
Take, for example, a recent story published on Buzzfeed. The story was originally (alarmingly) written with instructions on how to “kill your Facebook friend.” The author gave easy instructions – step by step – for turning a Facebook page into a memorial page. In 2009 Facebook introduced the ability for friends and family to memorialize the Facebook page of a user who dies. What happens is that the page is converted into a memorial page and deactivated from normal updates; this prevents friends from getting alerts about the deceased user. It also allows friends and family to preserve the page without having sensitive information online (contact information, for example) and prevents any new friend requests.
The problem with this is that anyone can request a Facebook account become a memorial page. When the user tries to log into their account, they get the following:
This account is in a special memorial state. If you have any questions or concerns, please visit the Help Center for further information.
The above-mentioned article gave explicit instructions as to how to do that. All that is needed, other than the user’s name and email (often displayed right on the page) is proof of death; this usually takes the form of a URL to a death notice, funeral home, anything that would “prove” the user is dead. For purposes of the article, the author faux-memorialized a colleague. She searched for an obituary with her colleague’s name. The death notice she chose did not remotely match up with the user she was going to memorialize for her experiment. In her own words:
The details of this obituary don’t match up at all – this guy is way older, and lives in Nebraska instead of New York.
Even worse, the names aren’t even spelled the same: he’s “Herrmann” (double R, double N) whereas the John I’m killing is “Herrman” (double R, single N)
(Note the inflammatory language she uses for her experiment)
She showed how easy it is to do this without needing much verifiable proof.
The original article included no instructions as to how to reactivate one’s account – only that “if this happens to you, it is easy enough to get your account back.” Perhaps due to a letter written to the author and a comment left on the site, the article was amended to include two “warnings”:
“WARNING: Don’t do this. It’s at the very least a pain in the ass for your friends.”
and a new title that is less inflammatory but still enticing enough:
How Almost Anyone Can Take You Off Facebook (And Lock You Out)
with the following in the subtitle:
Getting your buddy’s Facebook account turned into a “Memorial” state is surprisingly easy — and locks them out of Facebook. Warning: this will seriously mess up someone’s account.
Frankly, that kind of “warning” is all that may be needed to encourage a potential cyberbully.
The amended article also provides instructions for recovering one’s account. In fact, it is not easy at all for the user to recover the account. The original source for last week’s story (Rusty Foster) had it happen to him, and it took over 27 hours to get Facebook to reactivate him.
In researching further, I found out that this is not the first time a false memorial site has been requested. In 2009, Simon Thulbourn was unable to log into his Facebook page, receiving the notice that it was now a memorial account. He subsequently found out that the obituary used to convert his page didn’t even pertain to a deceased person with his name; rather, the reverend performing the service at a funeral was someone with a name similar to Thulbourn’s. It is obvious that whoever it is turning pages into memorials as per the forms filled out is not even checking the data properly to ensure that the memorial is truly accurate. It took a blog entry that he wrote and publicized describing his experience for Facebook to finally reinstate him as an active (live) user.
Facebook has not changed its process since 2009 when the method was first introduced. Users get no email nor do they get any way of confirming that they are alive (a time-sensitive email sent to the original email would be a perfect failsafe; if the user fails to respond within a set time, their page is memorialized. A live user would obviously respond).
Facebook released a statement in the recent case of Rusty Foster:
“We have designed the memorialization process to be effective for grieving families and friends, while still providing precautions to protect against either erroneous or malicious efforts to memorialize the account of someone who is not deceased,” the statement reads. “We also provide an appeals process for the rare instances in which accounts are mistakenly reported or inadvertently memorialized.”
(The old “asking for forgiveness instead of permission” approach should not be used in this case)
A big part of the problem is that this story has been publicized in the news and on social media, but the bigger problem is a site dedicated to what they call “social news” providing step-by-step instructions for how to “kill” a user on Facebook without their knowing it. And without their ever being able to prevent it.
How is this cyberbullying? Consider this: The adults who were locked out were discouraged, annoyed, and even angry. But imagine a kid, a teen, someone who may already be experiencing incidents of bullying at school, cyberbullying online – or both. Imagine that kid finding out s/he has been locked out of their Facebook account because s/he is ostensibly “dead.” As we know all too well, someone in an already-battered state of mind and diminished self-esteem can easily be pushed to the edge of despair. And at the very least, the article – which shows gross irresponsibility in its almost gleeful tone and step-by-step cyberbullying instructions – provides a new way for would-be cyberbullies to begin harassing new or favorite targets.
Cyberbullying happens all the time, and the last thing we need is new and more in-depth ways of helping those who bully. As adults, we need to model responsible online behavior. Aside from adults in a kid’s life, journalists, websites, and social media sites must provide positive examples of how the online world can be used and not expand the repertoires of bullies and tormentors.
When Simon Thulbourn’s account was converted, he had no access to his home page on Facebook. He received a screenshot from some friends who showed him how he was getting mock “Rest in Peace” messages. Imagine a kid who is now not only locked out of Facebook but is probably receiving those types of messages from the person who has created this situation and others who have joined in. We have seen the tragic reality of teenagers who have taken their own lives; we’ve seen the horrific postings of denigrating comments about those teens right on their own Facebook pages posthumously, as well as the recent example of Amanda Todd’s YouTube video and the terribly abusive comments she received after death. She never saw them but her family did. A target of this “prank” is easily the target of abusive comments on his/her own Facebook wall. And that teen will see the comments, which can only serve to further lower an already-damaged self-esteem.
As one of the key elements of cyberbullying is that it is repeated behavior, the potential for cyberbullying in the form of hurtful comments on a fake memorial page is significant. The loss of one’s Facebook page through the willful, hurtful actions of another is the first step to this form of cyberbullying, but add to that the comments the user will see when the account is reactivated, and the results could be unspeakable.
It is always sad when someone dies but it is potential cyberbullying when someone is memorialized as a “prank.” Perhaps the author of said article will heed the repeated request to take the story offline. But as it’s been up for at least a week, damage may already be done. Perhaps Facebook will finally put into place proper measures of verifying memorial page requests as well as sending warning letters to users who are about to lose access to their pages. In the absence of either of those things happening, let’s be vigilant and continue to discuss the results of such “pranks” with our youth.
Nice it Forward
There appears to be a growing movement among teens to, well, be nice. Or at least a movement to actively use social media to say nice things about others. We are all familiar with the myriad of ways that technology can be used to cause harm; this blog is dedicated to working towards limiting those behaviors and experiences. Some students, though, are now working to counteract all of that negativity by marshaling the power of technology to do good. Specifically, a number of teens have set up social media accounts, mostly on twitter, for the primary purpose of saying nice things about others at their schools.
The push to “Nice it Forward” seems to have been started by Kevin Curwick, a high school football player from Osseo, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis). Using his twitter handle “@OsseoNiceThings,” Curwick quite simply tweets nice things to his followers about his school and classmates:
“Probably the nicest girl ever. She’s fun to be around and loves to smile. A great adapted soccer and hockey player. Chelsey Gunderson.”
“Always has his heart in the right place and is doing his part to keep the kindness alive! Joe Tiedeman.”
“The best break dancer at Osseo. He’s the guy to go to for just about anything, especially a laugh. Billy Lor.”
The idea is catching on, not only around the Twin Cities metro area in Minnesota (@ERHSnicewords; @EdinaNice; @MinnetonkaNice) but at numerous schools around the United States @TerraceNice; @GNHSNiceThings; @kentwood_nice). For example, a student at a school near where I live recently launched an account (@CamNiceThings) in response to two twitter accounts that were anonymously feeding negative information about the school (the hurtful accounts have since been removed, thanks at least in part to a student who condemned them on Facebook).
I really love this. Sameer and I have long advocated for getting students involved in activities to prevent bullying and for empowering teens to do their part to develop a positive climate at their school (see this fact sheet with some ideas to get them inspired). It reminds me of the Pink Shirt Day movement that started in Canada over 5 years ago when two Nova Scotia teens wanted to do something to combat the hurtful comments that were being directed toward a freshman who wore a pink shirt on the first day of school. Instead of directly confronting the bullies, the seniors bought 50 pink t-shirts and encouraged their classmates to wear pink to school the next day. Talk about a strong message of support for the targeted student. And as far as I can tell, no adults were involved in the execution of this simple yet effective idea.
That also appears to be the case with the Nice it Forward movement. Teens from around the country are stepping up, even without the prodding of adults, to show their classmates that bullying is not cool. The media might have us believe that the majority of teens are bullies and even though our research clearly shows that isn’t the case, it is helpful to see teens take visible steps in their schools to illustrate that the bullies are in the minority. “Nicing” it Forward, so to speak, sends a message to those who are being targeted for bullying that they are not alone and that at least some students at the school are on their side and appreciate who they are and what they do. Everyone has value. But it also implicitly encourages everyone in the school community to be nicer to each other. Students are demonstrating that it is cool to care. And that, my friends, is cool indeed.