Teachers, Students and Facebook, Oh My!

Student Drama

Student Drama Photo from my Facebook Page (Censored Version)

This article examines the issues surrounding interaction between secondary school teachers and students on Facebook and focuses on the following questions:

  1. What are the benefits?
  2. What are the drawbacks and dangers?
  3. What are the legal issues related to posting student photos?

Before looking at these questions, however, it is important to understand that different cultures look at social media interaction between teachers and students in completely different ways. In Hong Kong (where I am based), for example it is very common for teachers and students in local schools to be Facebook friends. It is considered a good way for teachers to keep in touch with students. There are no official guidelines from the government, Education Bureau, school sponsoring bodies, school boards or school management. It is simply expected that teachers will be good role models of online behavior and that they will not take advantage of the social media platform to develop inappropriate relationships with students.

In countries like America and Great Britain, in contrast, interaction between students and teachers on Facebook is generally frowned upon and in many school districts is banned outright. If a teacher posts a photo of students on his/her own Facebook page, it is considered inappropriate, creepy, potentially illegal and/or an intrusion into the students’ privacy. In many school districts, if a teacher posts photos of students on Facebook or accepts students’ friend requests, it is considered grounds for dismissal. There are too many examples to give here, but a quick search of “teacher fired” facebook (www.google.com.hk/?gws_rd=ssl#q=%22teacher+fired%22+facebook) will lead to many examples.

The photograph at the top of the page—students dressing up for a drama about kidnapping—is from my own Facebook page; where I teach, no one would consider anything wrong with the photo or with my posting the photo. In other places, however, it would set off all kinds of alarm bells and I would likely be facing disciplinary action.

On the debate.org site, there is an online debate forum on the question ‘Should teachers and students be friends on Facebook?’ At the moment the commenters are split down the middle, with 52% saying Yes and 48% saying No:  www.debate.org/opinions/should-teachers-and-students-be-friends-on-facebook.


1. What are the Benefits?

Here are some of the benefits that I see. If you would like add to this list, please leave a comment below.

1.1 Mutual Understanding
Teachers and students can learn to better understand each other as complete human beings and hopefully come to respect each other more. In Hong Kong schools, a typical class will have close to 40 students. Teachers have little time to give individualized attention to students during class hours. It is usually via Facebook that one can learn things like Ada has a ballet exam coming up (Good luck!) or Peter just won an inter-school science competition (Congratulations!). These little interactions can give students the feeling that they are cared for.

1.2 Education Beyond the Classroom
Using Facebook is a way to reach students where they are. Should education efforts stop at the school door? For example, as an English teacher, I can use Facebook to post embedded videos of songs or educational videos, I can recommend students start watching a television programme or I can easily introduce them to books or films that they might like to borrow in our school’s English Corner.

1.3 Support
Teachers can spot students in emotional turmoil and provide support and encouragement. Students can also encourage teachers by giving them supportive comments. In rare cases of online bullying, the teacher would be able to intervene before things got out of hand.

1.4 School Spirit
It can be used to build a sense of class spirit and school spirit as staff and students share photographs and comment on their shared experiences during school sports days, competitions, class trips and class celebrations.

1.5 Role Models
Teachers can serve as role models (hopefully!) regarding how to communicate online in a polite and supportive way.

1.6 Information Transmission
Facebook can simply be used as an everyday tool for communication. Teachers can issue class reminders, such as what books to bring to school or what to revise for the next test.

1.7 Reflection of Student Views
Reading students’ Facebook messages can be a good way to find out sources of discontent before they explode. If students are dissatsified with school policies, it will show. Teachers and school administrators can then try to defuse any problems at an early stage.

A lot of these benefits made more sense in the recent past and in certain contexts. Let’s look at my own teaching environment in Hong Kong. The territory has the highest rate of Facebook users per capita in the world, with an estimated 75% of the population having an account (www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm) and a reported 40% using it daily (www.clickz.com/clickz/news/2290014/most-facebook-users-access-top-social-network-via-mobile). In the past, using Facebook was the most effective way to keep in touch with students. At my school, we have an intranet with internal email accounts for everyone, but many students and staff members only rarely check this account. Most messages I have sent would only be seen by around 10% of the recipients. On Facebook, however, students were logging in daily and checking their newsfeeds and messages. It was easy to let them know what was going on.

Now, it is difficult to determine how actively students are using Facebook. There are a lot of different social media platforms (e.g., Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat), and teens in general have begun deserting Facebook (www.upi.com/Science_News/Technology/2013/12/27/Study-Teens-abandoning-Facebook-leaving-it-dead-and-buried/UPI-29131388187244/) or using it less frequently. If a third of the class no longer bothers with Facebook, can it still be used effectively to create a strong class spirit?

Facebook has also made changes to its own operations that undermine the above benefits. For example, it started using its ‘Edgerank’ algorithm to select posts to show on news feeds. Now, if I were to post a homework reminder, it might only show up in the news feed of one or two students in the class (I guess homework reminders would not be considered very ‘edgy’). Therefore, Facebook is no longer an effective tool for communicating with entire classes.

With their Facebook news feeds becoming increasingly cluttered with paid posts and advertisements, teachers are also much less likely to come across situations where their support might be needed. If a student posts a message saying how depressed he/she is, it will go unseen by the majority of his/her Facebook friends, including the teacher.

With teens using Facebook far less frequently and with Facebook itself exerting much more control over what its users see, the benefits of student-teacher interaction on this online platform have become diluted, weakened.

Yet, all the drawbacks remain.


2. What are the Drawbacks?

One common reason given for placing bans on student-teacher interaction on Facebook is to prevent inappropriate relationships from developing. Of course, there have been such relationships that developed via Facebook, but with so many communication methods available—e-mail, Whatsapp, texting, phone calls, phone messages and even traditional handwritten notes and letters, it is not clear to what extent Facebook can be held responsible for fostering inappropriate relationships. For me, the main problems are as follows:

2.1 Intrusion into Students’ Personal Space
Do students need a private space where they can just be themselves and interact freely with their peers? If so, by ‘friending’ students, teachers would be intruding into this world. In the article, I cited earlier on teens leaving Facebook, the writers argue that the main reason teens are leaving is because their parents are now online and keeping track of them. Any place full of parents and teachers is not going to be very ‘cool’, and it’s not going to be somewhere students can freely express themselves.

2.2 Pressure on Students
Students may feel pressured. If a teacher sends a friend request to a student who wants to maintain a teacher-free Facebook environment or simply doesn’t particularly like that teacher, wouldn’t he or she feel a lot of pressure? (“If I refuse the request, does it give the teacher a bad impression of me? Will there be any consequences?“). This is why most teachers I know who do have students as Facebook friends never do the inviting. However, pressure can be exerted more subtly. For example, it a teacher expresses pleasure at receiving friend requests from his/her students, could that be interpreted as the teacher being displeased with the students who don’t send a request? If teachers start posting a lot of class news on their page, would that imply that students in the class are supposed to also be their ‘friends’? If a teacher posts a photo featuring some students and one of the students wants it taken down (maybe the photo is unflattering, or maybe the student just doesn’t like his/her photo online), won’t the student feel pressured to leave things be? Not many students are comfortable telling their teachers what to do.

Additionally, teachers sometimes like to post about amusing or frustrating incidents that happene at school–funny things a student may have said, a ridiculous examination answer, a dismal performance by the whole class. Though the students may not br named, would they feel a sense of shame upon seeing themselves being ridiculed or criticized.

Many of the points that follow deal with pressure on teachers, but it should be noted that because of the unequal power relationship between teachers and students, the pressure on students would be a more serious issue.

2.3 Questions of Impartiality
Teachers may feel pressured to appear impartial. If they are receiving friend requests from students, is it OK not to accept some? If some requests are accepted and some refused or ignored, wouldn’t that call into question the teacher’s impartiality? If teachers send birthday messages or words of encouragement to some students in the class but not others, will these students feel neglected or discriminated against? If a teacher sends a happy birthday message to one student in a class, is there then an obligation to send it to every student in the class?

If students perceive impartiality, do they then feel pressure to either say something or ignore the situation?

2.4 Self-Censorship
Teachers may feel pressure to self-censor everything they post. Earlier in this article, for example, I self-censored by not mentioning the traditional expression for wishing ballet dancers luck (it is not ‘good luck’ or ‘break a leg’). Given that teachers’ photos and comments are now open for everyone to see. A lot of care needs to be taken. “Is this statement too controversial? Does that photo reveal too much skin? Is this message too political? Is this shared video too religious, not religious enough or the wrong religion? Am I being too critical of my school? Will this make students question my impartiality?” On the one hand, having a Facebook profile allows you to curate your image; but on the other hand, you really need to constantly be on your guard. Your profile is no longer a window into your private self; it is merely the mask you show the public.

Some students may also feel this kind of pressure. They may want to announce being in a relationship, make a comment criticizing the school or post a sexy photo and then think, “Oh, what if my class teacher sees this? Should I post it? Should I unfriend my teacher first.” This pressure is related to the first point—the teacher’s intrusion into the student’s personal sphere,

Teachers may also  need to censor their friends. I only have one Facebook account. Cleverer teachers will have a private one and a school one. Occasionally. I will get friend requests from people who know me from my non-teaching life. For example, someone may know me from my online music videos and send me a friend request. I can’t really accept these friend requests as I have several hundred teens as friends. Isn’t it kind of dangerous if I throw adult strangers into the mix? What if I had a particularly rowdy or vulgar friend who was always posting provocative photos or comments? Should I unfriend that person just to be safe?

2.5 Blurred Boundaries

Teachers can be put in an awkward situation. I remember the time a 16-year-old student posted on my timeline how much fun she just had gambling in Macau’s casinos, where you need to be 18 to gamble. It turns out she was with her parents at that time, but my first reaction was “Oh my God, how can you post this on my wall?” Luckily I teach at a school where discipline problems are not serious, but still, what should I do if a student posts the wrong kind of photo (e.g., students in our school uniform making obscene gestures). Am I obliged to intervene or am I always supposed to look the other way? What exactly is the protocol here?

2.6 Discontented Parents
Parents may be annoyed or offended. Some parents prefer not to have their children’s images plastered all over the web. Yet the very thing they don’t want to happen is being done by their child’s teacher! Shouldn’t the teachers have gotten permission first? This issue is examined in the third part of this article.

2.7 Problems with Content Ownership
Facebook has notoriously greedy Terms of Service. When you open an account, this passage is included in the terms you are agreeing to.

“For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.” (www.facebook.com/legal/terms)

Thus, if I were to post a photo of a student, Facebook would be within its rights to use that photo in any way it pleases. For this reason, it seems that Facebook is definitely not a good place for school photos.

Have I left out any drawbacks?


3. What are the Laws Regarding Photographing Children and Publishing the Photos Online?

I was curious about this question: Am I legally allowed to post photos of students on Facebook? Therefore, I did a bit of research into it. The short answer is ‘yes’. What follows is an explanation of the reasons why. If you are not into reading a lot of legalese, you might want to skip this section and go on to the summary.

American, British and local (Hong Kong) laws are quite lenient when it comes to photographing children—photographers are free to take pictures of children in public places as long as the children are not posing in a provocative manner or not photographed in a context where privacy would be expected (e.g., in a changing room or in their bedroom). If photographers want to use the images commercially, however, a model release form is required. Laws are starting to change, with some states (notably Georgia and New Jersey) in America recently introducing or considering laws requiring parental consent before children are photographed.

Organizers of events with child participants may have guidelines prohibiting taking photographs of participants. Whether they have the legal right to do so, however, is unclear (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1194843/You-ban-parents-taking-pictures-schools-told.html)

Schools in Britain, North America and Australia tend to have clear guidelines about how photographs of students may be used. Here is an example of a parent consent form from Moil Primary School in Australia: www.schools.nt.edu.au/moilps/information_for_parents/pdf_files/media_consent.pdf

Here are guidelines from the Candian province of Alberta: www.servicealberta.ca/foip/documents/faq-school-jurisdictions.pdf

In the two examples, there is no mention of posting photos on Facebook pages simply because it is assumed posting photos on personal social media pages is not allowed.

Tagged Facebook photos raise different questions. Here the subjects are identified, which turns the photos into a kind of Personal Data. Personal Data is defined under Hong Kong’s Privacy Ordinance (Britain and America use similarly worded definitions) as meaning any data .

(a) relating directly or indirectly to a living individual;
(b) from which it is practicable for the identity of the individual to be directly and indirectly ascertained; and
(c) in a form in which access to or processing of the data is practicable.

A tagged photograph would therefore constitute personal data. The next question would be: If tagged photos constitute personal data, does the posting of tagged photos of someone on Facebook constitute an inappropriate collection of that person’s personal data. According to the Privacy Commissioner, there are two conditions for an act to be considered a collection of personal data:

• the collecting party must be thereby compiling information about an individual
• the individual must be one whom the collector of information has identified or or intends or seeks to identify (www.pcpd.org.hk/tc_chi/publications/files/Perspective_2nd.pdf)

Posting and tagging an image of a student in Facebook would meet the second criteria, but would not meet the first criteria unless you had an album devoted to images of that student (creepy!). This is assuming the Privacy Commisioner’s interpretation of the law is correct (which it may or may not be).

What about if you take Facebook as a whole into consideration? The whole purpose of Facebook is to keep compilations of information about its users. If you are uploading and tagging a photo of a student without express permission, are you not adding to Facebook’s compilation of personal data related to that individual? By setting up a Facebook account, thereby agreeing to the site’s Terms of Services, the individual would already have agreed to allow Facebook to compile personal data in this manner. (Note: Facebook has come under fire in some jurisdictions for issues related to tagging photos. For example, they have suspended their suggested tag feature in Europe so as to comply with European privacy laws: www.bbc.com/news/technology-19675172)


4. Summary

  • Attitudes towards teachers accepting Facebook friend requests from students vary greatly. In some places it is encouraged; in some places it can lead to dismissal.
  • Laws do not prohibit teacher-student interaction via social media. Many schools and school boards, however, have clear policies limiting or banning it.
  • Though there are both advantages and drawbacks to teacher-student interaction on Facebook, the decline in student usage of the social media site and changes to Facebook itself are diminishing the strength of some of the advantages.
  • Laws do not prohibit teachers from taking and posting photos of students. Parental permission is not legally required in most jurisdictions, but that doesn’t mean all parents won’t mind.


5. My Own Views

Since opening a Facebook account, I’ve accepted friend requests from students at the school where I teach; however, if I were to start again I would only accept friend requests from students once they graduated. It seems to me that the disadvantages outweigh the drawbacks.

I do upload photos featuring students from time to time, though I will likely end the practice this year and delete all existing photos.


6. Your Views

What are you own views on the issue? Leave a comment below.



Return to Writing


One thought on “Teachers, Students and Facebook, Oh My!

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