Thursday, October 6, 2011

Shrinking Privacy and the Challenge of Social Media

A recent article in the Gaston Gazette (Monday, Oct. 3, 2011) highlights the challenges that social media poses for everyone, and certainly for schools. Before turning to the main points of the article, let me begin with some observations on how privacy has shrunk in my eleven years as Head at Gaston Day. Before the advent and expansion of social media, youthful indiscretions--the kind that are part and parcel of growing up as a teenager--transpired either completely away from adult view or, when they did come to the attention of supervising adults (parents, teachers or school administrators), disciplinary consequences were handled quietly and with a minimum of public exposure. Those days are gone. Now teenage mishaps and mistakes are routinely shared on Facebook and quickly become a matter of public discussion and, at times, controversy. There is also a really good chance that the episode will end up in the newspaper.

Social media has made school culture and administrative decisions more transparent. Many parents welcome this transparency--until and unless the incident involves one of their own children. Personally, I regret the way in which social media has the potential to turn every adolescent mistake into a public embarrassment. Obviously, at one level, I also regret that every school crisis or misbehavior becomes a public black eye for Gaston Day School. But that's the way it is these days for every school. School administrators live with the sure and certain knowledge that social media will sooner or later bring some private transgression involving his or her school before the public. When times are good and our schools are calm and well behaved, we know it will not last forever. When someone makes a mistake--student, teacher, administrator--educators must quickly and correctly repond to the ensuing public debate, balance public demands and private considerations, and ride out the storm of controversy. Resilency has become a hallmark of educational administration. How quickly can a school bounce back from one Facebook controversy and resume a more stable learning environment? How many public controversies will surface this year?

If the loss of privacy as a result of social media only affected school administrators, then perhaps we could accept it as the cost of doing business. Unfortunately, it sometimes has terribly damaging consequences for our students and children. This brings me back to the Gazette article: "Experts: Sexting, Facebook can put students in danger." In that article, Sameer Hinduja, the co-director of Florida Atlantic University's Cyberbullying Research Center, states: "Many [young people] haven't set secure privacy settings on their profiles, and may not realize how easy it is for a Facebook friend to spread embarrassing content from a private profile. Add in impulsivity, multitasking and the ability to instantly post or text from a mobile device, and the results can be disastrous." According to Hinduja, "13% of children 11 to 18 [have] received a naked or semi-naked photo of someone from their school Nearly 8% admit sending a photo." When an embarrassing photo is shared on Facebook with nearly everyone who knows a teenager, the personal humiliation can be overwhelming to the point of desperation.

What can we do to protect our children from misusing social media? Here is a list of tips for safe online usage printed in the same Gazette article:

* Learn about and use the privacy and security settings on social networks. Consider restricting access to your page to a select group of people. For example, your friends from school, your club, your team, your community groups, or your family.
* Think twice before posting pictures you wouldn't want your parents or future employers to see.
* Be cautious about how much personal information you provide on social networking sites. The more information you post, the easier it may be for a hacker, thief of stalker to commit a crime.
* Install a security suite (antivirus, antispyware and firewall) that is set to update automatically.
* Use tools to manage the information you share with friends in different groups. If you're trying to create a public persona as a blogger or expert, create an open profile or a "fan" page that encourages broad participation and limits personal information. Use your personal profile for trusted friends.
* Let a friend know if he or she posts information about you that makes you uncomfortable.
* If someone is harrassing or threatening you, remove the person from your friends list, block the person, and report the incident to the site administrator.
* Make sure that your password is long, complex and combines letters, numerals and symbols. Ideally, you should use a different password for every online account you have.
* Be cautious about messages you receive on social networking sites that contain links. Even links that look like they come from friends can sometimes contain malware or be part of a phishing attack.
* Be aware people you meet online may be nothing like they describe themselves, and may not even be the gender they claim.
* Flirting with strangers online could have serious consequences. Because some people lie about who they really are, you never really know who you're dealing with.
                                                                                                        Source: Florida Atlantic University

Social media is here to stay and has so many positive features. Even so, there is also a risky, darker side. Parents should seriously discuss the responsible use of social media with their children. Parents also need to remain vigilant and supervise their childrens' use of social media to ensure safety. I hope the tips above are useful.