Posted by: schooleducator | April 18, 2009

Facebook Foils: Schools Need To Help Parents And Students

You see your child distraught, sitting at the computer. She is clearly shaken, and you walk over to console and talk with her. She shares what is on her computer screen and it sends ripples of fear through you. Your daughter is being cyber-bullied by one of her classmates on Facebook. Should you contact the school?

Yes. Schools want to know when cyber-bullying happens, even if it occurs after school hours and at home. The after effects can often spread through school the next day and impact the emotional safety of a child. How should parents engage their children with Facebook? One successful way is to become a friend on their Facebook page. But, this can be problematic, as Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus explains: “Parents friending their own children is seen as a particularly unnatural act. As my daughter explained, perfectly pleasantly, ‘There are things that I talk about with my friends that I don’t need you to know.'” So, if your child resists friending you, ask an uncle or aunt or close relative or family friend to friend your child. There needs to be an adult presence close by in the event a cyber-bullying incident takes place. And, your child needs to know that they can reach out to the adult for help.

Schools across the country are wrestling with how and if to handle student life on Facebook. One school administrator captures the tension: “The issue of having to deal with facebook and discipline seems to be coming up more frequently. In particular, the challenge that I find is determining what falls under the school’s purview, i.e. where do we draw the line between what is the parent’s responsibility and what is the school’s responsibility. I would love to know if any of you any guidelines or policies that deal with this matter.”

It is tricky business. Students rightly demand to know how it is the school’s business to get involved in what they are doing on Facebook. Where schools do get into trouble is by poking around in student Facebook pages. However, if and when parents, or other students, send the school screen shots of walls, chats, and postings that cross the lines of propriety (of course, this is the ultimate test – what is offensive to one person, especially an adult, may be seen as perfectly innocuous by a student), then the school simply cannot ignore the call for help or intervention.

How the school intervenes is critical. Approaching the student in question from a punitive perspective drives a deep wedge between the student and the school. Instead, schools needs to handle students with respect, care, and concern. They need to explain to students that what ends up on their Facebook wall can live forever, and increasingly, can stay with them as they apply to high school and college. More and more admissions officers are trolling Facebook to learn more about their applicants. Employers have been doing this for some time as well. Also, inviting the parents into the dialogue with the student opens the possibility for communication at home. Many parents have no clue what Facebook is all about, and having the school act as intermediary allows these parents to learn about Facebook and take a more active role in educating their children about online activity.

Many teachers friend their students, though some draw clear boundaries, and only friend students who have graduated. This is an issue schools need to address with their faculty. Students often do not use the privacy settings on Facebook, largely because they have not taken the time to learn how, or because they honestly do not care that the whole world can see their photos and comments. Teachers can often step in and help students with whom they are friends on Facebook and encourage them to use the settings. However, student-teacher interaction on Facebook is a slippery slope, and it is wise for schools to take time to talk through the many challenges that these friendships can bring. Teachers sometimes do not think before they post, and students can then gain access into a part of their teacher’s life that is not appropriate. This is the extreme case, but one that can happen.

Some teachers keep their Facebook pages closed and bound from intrusion by colleagues, students, and parents. They want to have a bastion of privacy. One faculty member shared that she politely declines requests from colleagues who request to be her friend. She lets them know that she appreciates the invitation, but she wants to keep her work life private from her personal life. However, she did say that she feels funny when she then sees the colleague the next day at school. The online rejection creates social awkwardness in real time.

The more school communities can be open about Facebook, the healthier students, teachers, and parents will be. Invite cyber bully experts to school to disclose the realities to students, to signal to students that the school cares, and to let students know that if they are being bullied, they should seek out an adult in the community to help them. Parent evenings, where conversation about challenges parents face in trying to legislate their child’s screen time, can often yield wonderful results, especially and most significantly in reassuring parents that they are not alone, and the school community can work together to make sense of social networking.

The ultimate goal is for parents to know how to help their child when things go awry. Smart parenting means putting the computer in an open space at home, in full view, so that parents can step in and help. The last thing parents should do is tune out or assume everything is okay. And, parents need to know that schools are there to help them make sense of what can be the tumultuous world of Facebook.

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