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Is Social Media Causing Inappropriate Teacher-Student Relationships?

Cell phones, texting and Facebook are hot new tools in the classroom, but there's growing concern that tech has brought students and teachers too close for comfort.

By Richard Laliberte

Smartphone and  schools
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Illustrations By William Duke

It was the end of a long day when high school teacher Larry Liu turned on his computer during final period to review the work his students had submitted for a recent assignment. He had asked the seniors in his AP psychology course to find true-life examples of positive or negative reinforcement, capture them with photographs, video or audio on their smartphones, and then upload them on a Facebook page he'd created for the class using a school e-mail address. The account was set up in a way that required the teens to "friend" him, which meant he could see everything they posted on their own accounts. Liu didn't know about the unrestricted access; he had simply set up the page the best way he knew how at the time. No sooner had he logged on than he spotted something alarming: "I feel like ending my life," a student had posted. Liu, then a teacher in Northville, Michigan, said he remembered that "this boy had seemed depressed and withdrawn lately, so it was a huge red flag." Within minutes, he phoned an assistant principal and a school guidance counselor, who then contacted the student's family.

It turned out the senior wasn't really suicidal—his comment was a joke, expressing his frustration over not having received any college acceptance letters. But the incident clearly illustrates how deeply social media and mobile devices have infiltrated our schools—and how they are blurring the boundaries between students and instructors, the personal and the private. These days teachers routinely send text messages about everything from exams to projects and homework. Kids use cell phones to vote in polls, post their academic work online, and go on Facebook to discuss study topics with one another and their instructors. In other words, teachers and teens are able to connect anytime, anywhere. "It's allowing them direct, unsupervised contact beyond the classroom," says Doug Phillips, director of Educator Investigations of the Texas Education Agency, which looks into allegations of educator misconduct. "And that's a very slippery slope."

The downside is evident in the slew of tech-related scandals over the past year. Last October a Pennsylvania math instructor pleaded guilty to texting a 16-year-old student and asking for naked photos, promising extra credit if he was "turned on." In Texas, a high school teacher was sentenced to five years in prison after exchanging hundreds of pages of texts with an 18-year-old student before inviting him to her home and having sex with him and four other students. "The vast majority of inappropriate teacher-student relationships now involve cell phones, texting or social media," says Phillips. But most transgressions are not nearly so lurid, he adds. Many occur when someone makes a misstep and breaks the rules of decorum and propriety—the instructor who sends a late-night text or makes a wisecrack, or the teen who friends her teacher and starts treating him like a confidant by sharing too much. "It's complicated for everyone—educators, students and their parents," says Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., author of CyberSafe. "But children are the most vulnerable, and they need to be protected."

Boundary Issues
Our kids are a wired generation, and many educators—especially those under 30—view texting and Facebook as not only the easiest, quickest way to connect with students, but also as valuable tools to engage, motivate and even excite them. "Teachers can send or post thought-provoking questions about what they're going to be discussing and let kids respond," says public school educator Lisa Nielsen, co-author, with Willyn Webb, of Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning. It's an opportunity for everyone in class—not just the eager beavers who always raise their hands—to participate in the discussion and for kids to bounce ideas off one another. "Say we're studying Romeo and Juliet," says Webb, who teaches 9th- to 12th-graders at Delta Opportunity School in Delta, Colorado. "I'll text a question like, 'What was Romeo's motivation for pursuing Juliet?' By the time class meets, the kids have texted in their ideas, which are shared on a screen, and everyone can start writing an essay the minute they sit down. It makes class time much more effective."

But with all that instant interaction, adults and adolescents can find themselves suddenly in dangerous territory. According to a Canadian program, students who were issued cell phones by their school to improve communication with teachers did better academically, but they also discussed personal matters with their instructors more often. "Problems typically start with concern for a child," Phillips explains. "A grown-up says, 'If you need help or somebody to talk to, call or text me.' That can develop into a relationship, emotions get involved, and the situation evolves into something inappropriate."

Social media have their own kinds of hazards. Despite being tech-savvy, teens often don't realize that once they "friend" a teacher on Facebook, he can see everything they post on the site—party videos, snarky comments, soul-baring confessions. And that can place educators in an awkward position. An instructor, for example, might find it impossible to judge a student fairly after reading profane comments or viewing compromising photos. Teachers also have a legal obligation to report suspected abuse. "There's a misperception that caring, supportive teachers are the ones most involved with students' personal lives, girlfriend/boyfriend troubles or problems at home," says Charol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., professor of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "Wrong. The best teachers urge kids to talk to a professional counselor or a parent."

Drawing the Line
As more educators embrace mobile and social media as teaching tools, states and school districts have been scrambling to develop or revise their tech policies. Some have prohibited texting on private cell phones, while others have attempted to outlaw student-teacher Facebook friendships or online interactions altogether. On the other hand, organizations like the American Association of School Administrators argue that stringent banning mandates—what Nielsen refers to as "ban-dates"—aren't the answer. In fact, they've been shot down in states that tried to implement them on the grounds of violating free speech, or because of pushback from parents and educators. "We don't want to over-regulate," says Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent of schools in Burlington, Massachusetts. "That's the problem with a black-and-white approach, which throws out resources for great communication." Seeking a middle ground, many schools now emphasize "responsible use" policies that educate students and teachers about appropriate conduct. But they can be maddeningly vague, recommending only that everyone exercise "good judgment" and treat others in "a respectful, positive and considerate manner." To some experts, maintaining boundaries in the digital world is no more difficult than in any other setting. "If the conversation is about school, and the medium is transparent and open, there's no problem," says Shakeshaft. That would mean teachers connecting with kids only on social media accounts on school servers, which are public and policed by administrators, or through group texts, never private ones.

Some educators, however, take a broader view. "We need guidelines that teach safety, etiquette and respect, with students and teachers not only collaborating on the language but also bringing parents into the conversation," says Nielsen. "Let's face it, texting and social media are here to stay. We need to help everyone be smart about them."

Parental Controls

Virtual communications between teachers and students can be a minefield. Help your kids steer clear of problems by following these expert tips.

Learn School Policy
If administrators plan to use texting and social media, you should receive written notification. Make sure individual instructors establish ground rules that all students agree to, and ask for a copy. Also request to be a member or have viewing rights of any online platform.

Talk with Your Teen
Review the class rules with your child and make sure she understands what constitutes unacceptable behavior—a "friend" request from her teacher or vice versa—and why. Explain that discussing anything personal with teachers is strictly out of bounds.

Check Logs
Let your teen know in advance that you'll be monitoring his cell phone records and computer history. Ask for his Facebook password so you can see what's happening on your child's page even if you don't friend each other. If you are friends, check the privacy controls and ask him to set them so that you can see everything. Find out if your child is on Twitter or Instagram (you can type in his phone number or name, though he might use a different one), since kids often migrate there to avoid parents lurking on Facebook.

Remain Aware
Your child may not tell you straight out that a teacher's behavior is making her feel annoyed, confused or uncomfortable. Stay alert for subtle clues and attempt to get her to open up. Watch out for signs of favoritism or special treatment: Late-night texts, one-on-one study sessions and rides home are all potential red flags.

Voice Your Concerns
If you suspect something improper but really aren't sure, talk with a school counselor. In cases where you have clear evidence of inappropriate behavior, arrange a meeting with the principal or other high-level administrators.

Sharing Tips

Parents should know how to take advantage of tools that allow kids and teachers to communicate and collaborate without compromising safety.

Advocates of e-communication and social media in the classroom like to point out that people, not technology, are to blame for any inappropriate student-teacher interactions. And when they occur, it's easy to identify those who've crossed the line. "In the past, incidents took place entirely out of view, but now everyone leaves a trail," says Patrick Larkin. Cell phones and websites record every call, text or post, and any kind of message, sent or received, can be forwarded to others. But there are ways to maximize social media's benefits while minimizing the risks. For example, instead of setting up a class page on a regular Facebook account that lets users see other people's personal pages, teachers can create one that students and parents subscribe to by "liking" it; everyone is able to view the teacher's posts—and add their own—without revealing private information. There are also middleman texting services designed for classrooms available free on the Internet, like Remind 101 (remind101.com), which enables teachers to text students and parents on their subscriber list while blocking phone numbers.

Texting Stats

  1. One in 10 middle and high school students have posted on Twitter about an academic topic, while 46% of high schoolers have used Facebook to collaborate on schoolwork.
  2. Texting is the mode of communication teens prefer. They exchange 60 messages a day, a 20% increase since 2009.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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