The perils of online ‘friendship’

June 6, 2011

Thinking of befriending your students on a social-media site? You may want to think again. While it may be a good way to meet students “on their terms”, a lawyer specialising in the use of social media has said that it can also be a mistake.

Elizabeth Rita, a partner from the US law firm Kelly, Stacy and Rita, said that the legal issues surrounding the use of social media were still a murky area.

“There is no overriding legal rule determining how universities and colleges should use social media,” she told delegates at the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators last week. “This is an evolving area of the law.”

Ms Rita acknowledged that the use of social media to interact with students was an issue that divided opinion in the academy, but said that she would advise lecturers not to become “friends” with students on sites such as Facebook.

While it is possible for academics to set up separate profiles for their professional and personal lives, Ms Rita said that many students did not make the same distinction when choosing whom to allow access to their data online.

“Be careful what you wish for: if you look, you will find,” she cautioned. “You can’t control what you see. You might be learning things about students that you decide are not beneficial for you to know.”

On the question of whether institutions could sanction students for comments posted on social-media sites, Ms Rita said that it was vital that universities had consistent protocols.

Although some universities do keep an eye on sites such as Facebook, there is evidence that students have grown wise to the fact that they are being monitored.

In one case at George Washington University, students advertised a party on Facebook, knowing that campus security were checking up on such events.

When security officers raided the party looking for alcohol, they found an empty house full of biscuits and cakes with the word “beer” written on them.

Ms Rita advised institutions to be aware of social-media activity while realising that not all student communication could or should be monitored.

But she warned: “Things over which you have control you will be [expected] to have knowledge of. You ignore them at your peril.”

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