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How we connect and thrive through emerging technologies.

Taking Aim at Facebook: Just Whom Are We Protecting?

Banning Facebook in schools is a blow to innovative education

Social media and Facebook in particular are an emotional powder keg these days.  From anxieties over stalking and child abuse to the potential for terrorism and social unrest, social networking is the new poster child for fear.  The state of Missouri has even gone so far as enact legislation severely restricting teachers online interaction with students. Gov. Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 54, or the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act" into law on July 14. 

There is a political and emotional appeal in artificially suppressing something you're worried about, in this case how teachers and students can communicate and connect.  You can either feel like you're doing something (or show your constituents you're doing something), and/or you don't have to see it when it does happen, so you don't have to worry about it.  But I guarantee you that there are already geeks inventing new ways of communicating that this law won't touch.  Unless, of course, you don't want teachers talking to students one-on-one at all. 

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The Missouri bill is ostensibly about the prevention of sexual abuse of children (which is a good thing), but sandwiched between the sexual abuse stuff, it also 1) grants immunity to employees who tell on other employees, 2) prohibits teachers from maintaining a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators, parents, and guardians, and 3) prohibits teachers from having a non-work-related site that allows "exclusive" access to current or former students under the age of 18.  "Exclusive" is undefined and remains open to interpretation, but not by the teacher, nor by the parent, by the way.  Its intent is to stop any private messages or conversations.  But what about the teachers who care enough to give students the kind of counseling, tutelage and mentorship that we all say we want good teachers to give?   How are they supposed to reach out if they ignore the way that most kids communicate?  Can teachers no longer talk to students alone anywhere?  Does this apply to guidance counselors and all school staff? 

 (Note: There's also a bit in there about conducting new criminal background checks and collecting a second set of fingerprints.  After the events in London and the talk about restricting social networks, even if you don't live in Missouri, you should read the bill and decide for yourself what in all this is 1) any of the state's business, 2) violates any civil rights, and 3) actually does any good in case some other government official wants to make a preemptive strike. )  

First, the online stuff this bill targets is a bit naive because it is not easy to find things on the web that aren't public unless you have very good technical skills and a certain moral flexibility when it comes to privacy rights.  Second, it is addressing the fear and symptoms of the problems, not the fundamental problems themselves.  It's hard to find child abusers, they tend to keep it on the down low no matter what rules you  make.  On the other hand, we can educate our children about both the good and bad things that new technologies bring.

I received a recent comment that took issue with my post  Should Teachers and Students Be Facebook Friends?  The main points of the comment and the author's objections to my post speak to the anxiety many people have about our socially networked society.  Those issues are:

  • The last thing it seems like a teacher would want is for students and parents to be following their every move.
  • Connecting to favorite students or high maintenance parents seems even more dangerous and inadvisable
  • People share things on Facebook that they might not want others in their workplace to know about
  • If people don't want to share, others should respect their choice
  • They are skeptical about Facebook and don't use it, preferring to keep in touch with real life friends via email and telephone.

First, most of those things are true, but they are matters of individual choice.  I totally agree that anyone who does not want to connect with students, co-workers or the rest of the world on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet, shouldn't have to.  I am a huge proponent of individual rights.  The freedom to connect or not connect is one of those.  At issue is not a trend to make teachers have Facebook profiles or contact students online.  It is the wholesale opposition to it.

The anti-Facebook and social media fears result in things like the Missouri law which has undefined implications for any conversations, face-to-face or virtual, irrespective of context or consent.  It deprives all teachers of using online communication tools with students to 'save us' from bad behavior by a few.  (Either that or in Missouri, they assume that most teachers are going to behave badly.)   We never win by taking away rights of many to 'stop' the few.  I may be old-fashioned, but I believe legislators should be spending their time 1) defending our rights and 2) figuring out how to educate and encourage people to become more active and responsible citizens. 

There are teachers and lawyers questioning whether or not the law will stand up in court because of its potential violation of the First Amendment.  I hope it get shot down because it also deals a hefty blow to integrating innovative uses of communications technology in learning environments.

In my next post, I'll give some examples of social media used well and some ideas for overcoming Facebookphobia.

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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