Setting social media boundaries between teachers and students

Technology in the classroom is the new normal, providing an array of opportunities for learning and productivity. At the same time, the proliferation of personal electronic devices and social media outlets among children is creating new challenges for educators, parents, and students alike. This new landscape is ever-changing and can be difficult to navigate, especially as we strive to protect children from the potentially dangerous aspects of online communication.

As abuse prevention takes its rightful place in the spotlight during National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, electronic communications and social media must be acknowledged for its potential role in the exploitation and abuse of children – not just at home but at school. Establishing clear electronic and social media boundaries is a critical element of protecting our children from sexual abuse in our schools.

Teachers and students are increasingly using technology to communicate with one another about class expectations and assignments; this kind of communication is valuable and perfectly acceptable. However, it is important to keep in mind that these interactions should be limited to posts that are visible by all users, including parents and administrators. And they should be done using district electronic platforms, never through personal email or personal social media.

As electronic devices and social media become the dominant means to communicate in our society, more and more students have their own devices, even in elementary school. Research shows an estimated 83% of students have their own cell phones by middle school, 64% have access to the internet via their own laptop or tablet, and 50% have social media accounts by age 12. This widespread access to private electronic communication opens an entirely new area for abuse and the opportunity for risky personal relationships between staff and students to be established. Once established, this communication can be difficult to stop and almost impossible to manage.

Child sexual abusers often leverage a child’s access to electronic devices and common social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But they may also encourage students to communicate with them via specialized apps that hide the trail of their interactions. These apps include:

  • text and call apps that do not show up on a phone bill
  • temporary apps where texts and photos disappear within seconds of viewing
  • live streaming video apps which allow interactions without recording, and
  • photo vaults and ghost apps which mask private photo libraries, web browsers and contacts.

According to research by McAfee, 70% of teens hide online activity from their parents. Child sexual abusers know how to exploit a young person’s longing for independence and privacy. Strict policies are required to prevent school staff from using these social media apps for exploitation and potential abuse of students.

There are several steps that school districts can take to help protect students. First, all district-provided devices should utilize security software that restricts the ability to download and access all social media applications. This includes devices provided to both staff and students.

Second, to mitigate access via personal devices, a strict policy must be implemented that prohibits the following activity:

  • Calling or texting students, and vice versa
  • Sharing cell phone numbers for any reason
  • Sharing personal email addresses or user names
  • Connecting with students on social media apps, regardless of who initiates the request

Finally, to keep the relationship between teachers and students strictly professional, it is good policy to require staff to refrain from showing any sexually inappropriate images or comments or highly personal information on social media accounts that are accessible to the general public.

These policies must be regularly communicated to school staff, parents, and students in order to be effective. While policies in and of themselves cannot always prevent the exploitation of students via electronic devices or social media apps, they do provide a clear roadmap for what is and is not acceptable behavior in this area. They also set an expectation that allows administrators to take action if any of these boundaries are violated.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month is the perfect time for school districts to assess their current policies and practices when it comes to electronic devices and social media, with a primary focus on restricting private electronic communications between teachers and students. In this new era of technology and communication, school districts must do everything they can to protect the students in their care from potential abuse.

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