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Social Media vs. Student Privacy

Does the Convenience of Social Media Intrude on Student Privacy?

In today’s world, parents and guardians of school-age children seem to be busier than ever. For them, time can be an ever-shrinking commodity, especially when juggling numerous family and work responsibilities. That sometimes leaves a small window of opportunity for schools and school districts to communicate quickly and effectively with this time-stretched group

For many schools and school districts, social media, especially Facebook, is a quickWoman on laptop computer looking at a Facebook page. and easy way to share news and information. Parents and guardians can keep up with the goings on at their child’s school simply by following the school’s page on Facebook. Not only is written information shared, but also photos, and in some cases, videos. However, sharing students’ likenesses via photos on social media may raise some privacy and safety concerns among parents and guardians.

“Posts on many social media platforms are publicly accessible. What this means in practice is that anyone can access these posts—and there is evidence from past research and reporting that public social media posts are accessed by a range of actors. Specifically, we know that law enforcement and companies that provide analytics to law enforcement agencies engage in large-scale collection of social media data, as do government agencies and some truly nefarious individuals. One context in which parents alike have raised concerns about the over-sharing of posts about children is when other parents share photos of their children—sharenting. We focused on this phenomenon and the risks that might follow from it in an educational context,” said Joshua Rosenberg, who has been conducting research on how schools communicate via social media platforms.

Rosenberg is an assistant professor of STEM education and a faculty fellow at the Center for Enhancing Education in Mathematics and Sciences in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Education, Health and Human Sciences (CEHHS). Along with an international team of researchers, Rosenberg analyzed a novel data set of 18 million posts on Facebook by schools and school districts across the United States.

“In our recent research, we wanted to understand how frequently schools and school districts shared publicly accessible posts on their Facebook pages that revealed the personally identifiable information of students. We thought this would be an important first step in addressing any risks to students’ privacy, as it could reveal the extent of this possible issue,” Rosenberg said.

The team set out to answer two questions.

  • To what extent do public Facebook pages of schools and districts depict one or more students in a photo?
  • To what extent do they identify one or more students by both name and photo?

Research has shown that parents and guardians have been concerned for some time about how others share information about their children and how that information may be used by third-party companies as well as domestic and foreign government agencies. Another concern, how ethical is it to share this information on social media?

The study estimates that around 4.9 million posts contained pictures of students that could be identified and around 725,000 posts included the students’ first and last names. Not only did the post name the students, they also included their approximate location.

“We note in our study that the activity of schools and school districts may run counter to protections in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but that even if the posting we studied is not illegal, it raises key ethical questions that follow from the fiduciary responsibility schools and districts have where it comes to protecting students and their privacy. We used ideas from the emerging, interdisciplinary field of data ethics to suggest that educational leaders reconsider sharing personally identifiable information about students through social media—or to take steps to ensure that these posts are not used in unanticipated and concerning ways,” Rosenberg said.

It’s been said that if you don’t pay for an online product, you are the product. As social media algorithms and data mining become more sophisticated, the question of how to better protect students from potential harms from these practices becomes front and center with parents, schools and school districts. Technology can move at a rapid rate and a challenge for educators is how to balance student privacy while quickly and effectively communicating with parents and the greater community.

“By no means do we hope to suggest that schools and school districts stop communicating with parents and guardians—and students. We know that social media is an important way for many of us to stay in touch with the people and organizations we care most about, including the schools and districts in our communities. At the same time, we suggest there are some concrete steps that educational leaders can take to protect the privacy of students at the same time that the beneficial aspects of social media are realized. These include not posting students’ full names, refraining from posting photos that easily identify students, making public pages moderated (so that viewers must be approved by a page administrator), and being clear in the media release forms that parents sign that they can elect to opt-in (or opt-out) from information about their children being shared in social media posts,” Rosenberg said

You can read more about the study here:

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