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Should Teachers and Students Be Facebook Friends?

Prohibiting teachers from Facebook is like putting your head in the sand

I have a mantra I'd like to share whenever technology makes you anxious. Repeat after me: "It's not about the tools."

Ask most students if they are Facebook friends with their teachers and they will tell you, "it depends on the teacher." That alone should tell us that a blanket policy prohibiting teachers from interacting on social networks with students is the functional equivalent of burying your head in the sand.

Social networking technologies are not going away. Instead of trying to regulate behaviors from the 'top'-and there's plenty of evidence that extrinsic motivation doesn't work all that well-why don't schools and businesses add digital citizen training on top of the other social and ethical issues they address, such as diversity training, sexual harassment training, and school safety.

Schools present an especially difficult problem because there is not only a power imbalance between teachers and students, but most students are minors throughout high school. The age of majority varies by jurisdiction from 16 to 21, but the exact number isn't the point. It's a question of maturity and responsibility. Working with children presents additional ethical dilemmas and responsibilities, not to mention dealing with their parents.

All of this argues for starting digital citizenship training with teachers in the context of other ethical issues. Sexual harassment can happen in a text as well as in a classroom. The line between positive involvement and spying or harassment is more difficult to track. After we teach the teachers, the sensible thing is to educate the students in digital citizenship-not just by trying to put the fear of God in them about bullying or sexting-but to discuss the positives and negatives of the whole evolving landscape.

I hope this isn't a surprise, but our kids are going to grow up. They are going to live in an increasingly digital world. If this makes you hyperventilate, this is NOT -- I repeat -- NOT a world without personal relationships. Digital communications do and will provide the glue for richer interpersonal connections and personal development both personally and professionally. All of us will increasingly interact with all kinds of people. We will all have to figure out how to establish our personal boundaries-just like in real life. Let's teach our kids how they can use technology well. But we need to remember that you can't teach French if you don't know the words any more than you can teach digital citizenship if you don't know how things like how the privacy panel works in Facebook. It's like learning another language.

Facebook allows teachers to stay informed and have a sense of what's happening in kids' lives. It can be a useful way of providing a classroom "hub" outside of class with announcements, assignments, and access to help with homework.

Facebook makes teachers more human and models a responsible adult presence. It also reinforces the idea for teens that the Facebook world is not separate from the adult world. Kids need to learn that what happens in Facebook does not stay in Facebook.

Students can begin to learn that there can be ramifications for what gets shared online. Just like if a teacher overhears you bragging in the hallway about ditching school, they can overhear you on Facebook.

At the same time, teachers and parents must understand that Facebook is also outside the home or school. It's important to have boundaries on both sides. Teachers and parents should be supportive rather than judgmental unless the situation seems serious and ethically warrants some kind of action or contact. It should not be viewed as a place for "intervention" any more than any other public space.

Teachers and parents need to be mindful of this power inequity if they initiate "friend requests." Most kids will find it uncomfortable to receive a request from a teacher (or parent) without some other kind of connection and clarification. A conversation should precede the friending unless the site is for class purposes only.

Teenagers are, developmentally, tasked with individuation - finding out who they are independent from their primary family unit. This is why teens so often adopt different identities, forms of dress, music, activities, and other identifiers of social 'types' - even to the point of changing groups of friends. On Facebook you can have new groups of friends without having to abandon the others. We all know it's not uncommon for people (of any age) to take advantage of a move to a new town or going off to a new school to redefine themselves as they would like to be. Why should social networks be any different? There is a lot of concern about false identities and misrepresentation. What about aspirational selves that we put forward?

Students often admire their teachers and teens also want to be "grown up." Facebook is more similar, socially, to a peer relationship, so it elevates the student's sense of their equality with a teacher - raising their sense of status and autonomy. They can learn about boundaries by how the teacher sets them, as well as see the balance of work and personal life. Most importantly, this type of connection creates trust. Much of what we try to teach kids in school has no particular relevance to their daily lives. By connecting with and trusting teachers, students can internalize some of the educational goals the teacher embraces, shifting the motivation from extrinsic toward intrinsic.

Teens are pretty self-focused and they benefit from understanding that social networks are not a world apart. The sooner they learn to navigate the digital environment responsibly and effectively, the better they will do in many aspects of their lives. Social networks have become a very valuable source of business networking, job opportunities, and positive social connections, not to mention providing a wealth of information for learning. Individuals, organizations and educational institutions provide instructions on everything from simple tasks, like fixing a leak or writing a resume to open classrooms that can help you with school assignments, in your job, expand your knowledge about a field, or give you cultural background for travel or relocation.

The big question is how YOU use social media. Just because social media tools have various functionalities, doesn't mean that's how you have to use them. If the phone rings, there is no law that says you have to answer. The same is true with social networking sites. The good news is that you can leave friend requests in limbo forever. You can also unfriend people and they won't know until they try and access your page-as long as you have your privacy settings in place.