Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

Are Student Consent Forms Outdated When it Comes to Privacy?

Study Examines Media Release Policies of U.S. School Districts

It’s 2024. Do you know where your child’s private information is on the internet? The latest addition to a line of research initiated by Knox County teacher and University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumna, Macy A. Burchfield (‘22), and co-authored by associate professor in the Department of Theory & Practice in Teacher Education, Joshua M. Rosenberg and Sondra M. Stegenga from the University of Utah, has revealed the alarming indication that, not only is private information belonging to school-aged children circulating through social media channels largely untracked and unprotected, the media release policies and parental consent forms in use among the nation’s largest school districts currently do not inform caregivers about their planned use of social media in a comprehensive way. These policies, or, lack thereof, may be where the problems and risks with student data privacy in social media are originating.

Photo of Joshua Rosenberg. He has fair skin and dark hair. He is wearing a plaid shirt and glasses. He is in front of a dark background.

Joshua Rosenberg

The new study, published in The Journal of Research on Technology in Education, used qualitative content analysis (QCA) to analyze district policies from the 120 largest school districts in the United States, based on enrollment. The districts contained more than 86,000 students on average, or, about 20.9 percent of students in the country.

Though 87.7 percent of informed consent/media release documents analyzed mentioned the types of media that might be shared by the school, (photos, students’ names) and where it may be shared (newspapers, school websites, social media in general), only 13.3 percent of the forms contained mention of specific social media platforms where student information may be shared, such as Facebook, X, or YouTube. Furthermore, almost no forms disclosed the potential risks of sharing students’ personal information publicly. This is concerning since we know as a society that social media use is extremely widespread and that privacy risks exist, let alone the possibility of FERPA violations from sharing student information.

Sondra Stegenga

Sondra Stegenga

One thought-provoking and actionable conclusion from the study was that the forms in question may simply be outdated and in need of revision. Many of the consent forms analyzed were created prior to today’s age of social media. These outdated forms were meant to address sharing information in non-digital media, such as school directories and yearbooks.

“We now appear to be in a time of outdated consents that lack the specificity for an authentic understanding of the consents, leading to genuine risks to the child and family,” according to the study. “We question, is it really true informed consent, even if the boxes are checked and it is signed, if the family does not have all the necessary details and information to understand what, where, and why personally identifiable information will be shared?”

In an age of increasing digital experiences across the globe, this study contributes to the larger conversation of digital data ethics and informed consent. School districts in the U.S. and the wider educational community can increase safety by examining and updating their data policies and consent forms to better protect our younger generations’ privacy.

“I must say, attention to this issue of consent is immensely important, not only related to best practices in information security, but also related to the ethical obligations we have in ensuring truly informed consent with parents and students, ” said co-author Sondra Stegena.