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.
Help With Fake Facebook Profile Pages
Imagine you receive an email from a friend that includes a link to a Facebook profile. You click on the link and see your name and picture on the profile. But you didn’t create it. And some of the information included isn’t exactly flattering. In fact, it’s embarrassing, and malicious, and ruining your reputation. Now what do you do? We regularly receive requests from people who find themselves, their kids, or their friends in this situation. The key in responding is to move quickly to gather information and to inform the proper authorities.
If you know who created the profile, ask them to remove it. Facebook has a social reporting tool that allows you to convey your disapproval, and ask that the content be removed, in a respectful way. (You can read Larry Magid’s recent interview with Facebook’s Arturo Bejar where they discuss these options.)
If you don’t feel comfortable with that, or do not know who created it, you can report it to Facebook and it will be disabled while they investigate. If you do not have a Facebook account, you can report imposter profiles here. If the creator of the fake profile attempts to log into the account after it has been reported, Facebook will require the user to prove their identity and display a map that shows where they are at (thereby removing the veil of complete anonymity). I think that is pretty cool! Facebook also educates the user about the consequences of identity theft. The company has developed numerous other tools to help you protect your information and reputation, including a form that allows you to request the records of an account that was impersonating you. Learn about and take advantage of all of these resources.
It is important that you collect as much information about the profile as you can before reporting it to Facebook. Take screenshots (see our fact sheet here) or simply print out the profile and any related information. Note the URL (web address) of the page because it includes the user ID (http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000000XXXXXXXX) or username (http://www.facebook.com/username). Try to identify all of the people who are connected to the profile (friends or followers). Collect as much information about them as you can. It might help in determining who was behind the creation of the profile.
Overall, the more information you can gather, the more easily it will be to identify who is responsible, and hold them accountable, if necessary. Once the account has been disabled by Facebook, it will be more difficult for you to get the evidence you need. And if the account creator deletes the account before you have a chance to report it to Facebook or collect the evidence, it can be impossible to obtain information about who created it. So move quickly to capture what you can.
If you believe that what was said or posted about you on the fake profile is of a criminal nature (e.g., a threat or a hate crime) or violates your civil rights (e.g., defamation of character or libel), contact local law enforcement so that they can investigate. This is particularly important if you feel that your safety (or the safety of someone else) is in jeopardy. The police are trained to determine whether information contained on the site could be viewed as a “true threat,” or if it violates the law in any other ways. The first thing the investigating officer should do is complete a formal request to Facebook to preserve the page details and accompanying account information before they are deleted by the user who created the page. Officers can do this even before a formal investigation has begun. The sooner this is done, the better. There are more guidelines for law enforcement officers here.
Law enforcement can also assist you in obtaining a subpoena, which is a legal order that requires a person or entity named to show up at court or to produce documents or other information specified (that could be used as evidence in a trial). While the specific procedures can vary by state, law enforcement officers can obtain a subpoena from a judge, county or state prosecutor, or other qualified attorney, once an investigation has begun. Facebook regularly assists law enforcement in responding to subpoenas by providing information about the creator of the account, including their name, email address, date of birth, and some other account identifiers provided by the user when they signed up. Lawyers can also obtain a subpoena for the purposes of obtaining evidence to be used in a civil case.
With a court order (which can only be issued by a judge), law enforcement officers can get additional information from Facebook, including transactional logs such as intra-session IP addresses. The IP address is the unique identifier that every online device is given. With the IP address, law enforcement will be able to determine the Internet Service Provider (ISP). Again using a court order, the officer will be able to obtain from the ISP the billing address and other subscriber information of the person involved.
If during the course of the investigation the officer determines that criminal charges are appropriate, they may obtain a warrant from a judge for the purpose of collecting even more information from Facebook, including the content of the pages (e.g., photos and comments). A warrant is another court order issued by a judge, but it must be accompanied by probable cause that the information requested is necessary for the purposes of investigating a crime. According to the Stored Communications Act: “A governmental entity may require the disclosure by a provider of electronic communication service of the contents of a wire or electronic communication…only pursuant to a warrant issued using the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure…” So without a warrant, Facebook has no obligation to provide the content of the pages. This is a good thing for those of us who use Facebook and other online environments appropriately and legally: Only when we are implicated in a crime should the content of our profiles be turned over to the government.
The differences described above between what information can be obtained through a request, a subpoena, a court order, or a warrant is determined somewhat by the company (Facebook in this case) but mostly by federal and state law. It largely depends on whether the information requested is the property of the company, the Internet Service Provider, or the customer. Technically, everything you post on Facebook is your property, though you give Facebook permission to use that information for certain purposes as a condition of using the site.
Some states include electronic communications in their impersonation or identity theft laws. For example, it is a class A misdemeanor in New York if someone “Impersonates another by communication by Internet website or electronic means with intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another, or by such communication pretends to be a public servant in order to induce another to submit to such authority or act in reliance on such pretense.” Consult with law enforcement or a local attorney to learn more about the specific laws in your state.
In many cases, however, fake profiles are created for a laugh and the persons responsible perhaps do not fully understand the consequences of their behavior. This is especially true in incidents involving adolescents. So if there is no clear threat or other evidence of criminal behavior, resist contacting the police and try to work through the problem informally, involving parents, schools, and other adults as appropriate.
That said, there have been many incidents where students have created profiles about educators or their classmates that have ended up in court. Try to avoid this by proactively educating your children and students about these issues, and by creating a positive climate at school. In that way, hopefully they will not participate in these behaviors and if someone else does create a fake profile about them, they will know what to do and will feel comfortable turning to an adult for help.
Pause Before You Post
Technology is great and we know from our research that the vast majority of teens are using it safely and responsibly. But a few are creating problems for themselves or others by what they post online. That’s why we’ve partnered with Jostens to produce a number of useful resources for you to educate yourself or the teens in your life about the pitfalls associated with unwise postings. “Pause Before You Post” is a movement to remind students to carefully consider the consequences of posting something online. Whether they are posting something private about themselves or something hurtful about someone else, the costs can be steep. Here is a short video that introduces the campaign. You can also find a number of other short videos that feature Sameer and I talking about various issues related to teen technology use here.
One of the most popular documents we wrote for this program was “A Student’s Guide to Personal Publishing” which is available here. Jostens has put together a Pause Before You Post Kit that includes posters, pins, flyers, a DVD and CD with videos and curriculum based on our research. For more information about the kit, talk to your local Jostens representative or visit the Jostens web site. Since October is bullying awareness month, it is a good time to remind students to pause before they post!