As the use of social media increasingly becomes arguably the main way that most people (including schools and their communities) connect, communicate and disseminate information in our society, schools and their staff face a number of ethical issues. While most schools have policies prohibiting staff from making or accepting social media ‘friend requests’ from current students, the lines are often not so clear when it comes to parents or former students. The lines can be even further blurred for a school’s volunteers or contractors, such as coaches and tutors, particularly those who are themselves former students or parents.
So it is possible to draw firm boundaries for staff around social media friendship and, if so, where should these boundaries be? The Office of the eSafety Commissioner (eSafety Commissioner) has developed some excellent resources for schools about social media in its eSafety Toolkit for Schools (Toolkit) that may be of assistance.
Jordan Foster, Managing Director of YSafe and a Clinical Psychologist, also has some suggestions for schools that might assist.
‘Official’ School Accounts and ‘School-authorised’ Accounts
Many schools have one or more ‘official’ accounts on various social media sites and platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TeamsApp, and SchoolBag. These enable the school to quickly inform students and parents of important communications, matters of interest and issues that may arise over the course of the school day, week or year. Many of these sites and platforms require an ‘opt-in’ by students and parents that must be accepted or confirmed by the school, i.e. akin to a friend request.
While these group-type social media connections are less fraught than individual connections, they are not without their issues. The eSafety Commissioner’s Toolkit resource Guidelines for social media use, video sharing and online collaboration has an excellent list of matters to consider, such as determining who will have administration rights (which includes reviewing and accepting friend requests), reviewing the platform’s safety and privacy settings, defining how and why the particular platform will be used, and communicating this to the school community.
These official accounts may not be enough, however, to ensure that parents and students receive all of the information that they need. For example, teachers may want to set up an ability for their students to chat online to enable group project collaboration or to seek teacher feedback and assistance, and individual sports teams and their coaches may want their own group within a platform to enable parents to collaborate on car-pooling or to organise volunteer activities. Facebook groups have historically been the preferred platform for this kind of communication. According to Ms Foster, however, private messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are also becoming increasingly popular, particularly with parents, as a more fluid way of communicating than posts on group pages.
In order to use these options, schools and staff should understand that it is not always necessary for the people in the group to be ‘friends’ with the group’s organiser or each other in order to participate. People need only join the group to participate. Further, according to Ms Foster, schools may have no visibility or administration rights over these groups.
In Guidelines for social media use, video sharing and online collaboration, the eSafety Commissioner recommends that schools require that the use of these options by staff to communicate with students and/or parents be approved by the school before setting up the group account. Further, in its Toolkit resource Tips for staff using social media, the eSafety Commissioner recommends that at least two staff members should have access to any school-authorised social media account, one of whom should be a member of the leadership team.
Ms Foster advises that schools should be mindful of the unique challenges involved in group conversations on social media, including the more casual conversation style often used in these platforms potentially lending itself to inappropriate communication, the feeling of privacy that can lead to communications that are critical of people outside of the group, and the ability for group members to include or exclude new members irrespective of who has administration rights. She suggests that schools frequently check to see if new pages or groups have been created using the school name, as parents often create new accounts without seeking permission from the school. In some cases, schools have been able to report unofficial pages to the relevant platform for removal, using copyright infringement as a reporting justification. While not always resulting in successful removal, this can be a helpful strategy when pages contain content that defames the school, its students or its staff. In relation to private messaging platforms, parents should be encouraged to practice behavioural standards that are reflected in the school’s ICT ‘acceptable use’ policy.
‘Personal’ Social Media Use by Staff
Current and Ex-Students
When it comes to personal social media use by staff, most schools prohibit staff from making or accepting friend requests from current students for very good reason. These policies help to protect students from grooming behaviours and staff from allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
The eSafety Commissioner recommends, in Tips for staff using social media, that staff maintain professional boundaries on social media and avoid accepting friend requests from students and their parents/carers. Importantly, it also includes “recent ex-students” in this recommendation. Prohibiting social media friendship between staff and recent ex-students not only helps to protect students from non-professional relationships with staff prior to the student leaving the school but also protects staff from an assumption that this may have occurred. Indeed, the same can be said of personal – rather than online – friendships between staff and recent ex-students.
So who is a “recent ex-student” for the purposes of the eSafety Commissioner’s guidelines? How long should staff and ex-students have to wait until they can be friends on social media, or indeed in person?
The eSafety Commissioner does not give an answer nor do most other formal guidelines for school staff, such as teachers, issued by professional standards bodies. For example, in its resource for Western Australian teachers Teacher-Student Professional Boundaries, the Teachers Registration Board of Western Australia discusses “relationships with former students”, saying that – by maintaining a strictly professional relationship with students – a teacher who subsequently forms a relationship with a former student will be less likely to come under scrutiny, provided that “considerable time” has passed between the time when the student was at school and the commencement of the relationship. “Considerable time” is not defined. Similarly, in Protective practices for staff in their interactions with children and young people, guidelines for staff working or volunteering in education or care settings (SA Protective Practices Guidelines), the South Australian Department for Education discusses “sexual relationships between legally consenting adults where a staff-student relationship once existed”, saying that “where a relationship develops with an ex-student, their employer is entitled to consider whether their actions suggest an abuse of their position as a staff member … The length of time between the conclusion of the staff-student relationship and the beginning of an intimate relationship is only one of a number of critical factors employers or registering/regulating authorities will take into consideration when judging the appropriateness of a staff member’s conduct.”
Given this lack of guidance for schools on when their staff and ex-students should be able to be friends, whether on social media or otherwise, it may not be possible for a school to give a set timeframe in its social media policies. Rather, as suggested in the SA Protective Practices Guidelines, the policy could make clear that, when considering social media friend requests from ex-students, staff should be aware that online relationships with recent ex-students may give rise to disciplinary proceedings for violating staff-student professional boundaries, depending on:
- the length of time between the conclusion of the staff-student relationship and the beginning of the online/in person relationship
- the age difference between the staff member and the ex-student
- the developmental capacity of the ex-student
- the vulnerability of the ex-student
- any evidence of the nature of the relationship while the staff-student relationship existed
- any other concerns or allegations about the staff member’s conduct.
Ms Foster also suggests that the social media platform itself must be considered. According to Ms Foster, the interpersonal considerations set out above should be the primary consideration for staff when considering whether to make or accept a friend request from ex-students (and for schools when developing an ICT ‘acceptable use’ policy), followed by considerations of platform privacy, purpose and functionality. The functionality of the various social media platforms and how these are used directly influence how the relationship may operate online. For example, an ex-student connecting with a teacher on a professional platform such as LinkedIn may be justified, particularly in light of the interpersonal points above. However, the interpersonal issues may be heightened when the platform has functionalities such as geolocation tagging or disappearing content features, such as Snapchat and Facebook Messenger.
Personal Connections with Students or Parents/Carers
School staff and contractors will often have personal connections with students and their families – they may be family members, family friends or have social connections through community clubs or other organisations. Some schools also hire recently graduated students (either as staff or contractors) to assist with extra-curricular sport or other activities – these young people will without doubt have current students as friends on social media. These personal connections therefore create a valid context for social media friendship, text messages, phone calls, email or other electronic means of communication between the staff member/contractor and a student or their parent/carer.
For the sake of transparency, and to enable a school to be aware of when social media friendships between staff and students are appropriate (or inappropriate), these personal connections should be advised to the school principal and verified, in writing, by the parent/carer.
It is even more common for volunteers to have personal connections with a school’s students and their families – most volunteers at a school are parents or family members of its students. As a result, it is impossible to apply to these volunteers the same boundaries around accepting and making social media friend requests with students that apply to staff. Yet the potential for a volunteer to use social media to groom a student is still a significant risk that must still somehow be addressed. Another concern raised by Ms Foster is that, in many jurisdictions, volunteers are not included as mandatory reporters, which has implications for both the volunteer and the school in being able to identify and report inappropriate online communications or online indicators that a student is at risk of harm.
As with staff and contractors, it is important for the school to be told about any existing personal connections between volunteers and students. Ms Foster also advises schools to capitalise on their Code of Conduct to clearly define the limitations of online and social media communication by volunteers with students other than their own family members and the processes for reporting (both internally to the school and externally to the relevant government authority) if this is breached. She suggests that ideally schools require all communications by volunteers and contractors that occur online with students, other than their own family members, to be logged within a secure school recording system and that written notes should be made of video calls, which should outline details of the interaction. When providing induction or ongoing training for volunteers and contractors, schools can reinforce the importance for these processes, not only for the protection of the students, but as protection for themselves.
Despite this being a sometimes fraught and complicated area, it is an area of risk for schools and their students. Some of the strategies and suggestions outlined above will hopefully assist schools to seek to manage this risk.