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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.
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 Liu, then a teacher in Northville, Michigan, said he remembered that "this boy had seemed depressed and withdrawn lately, so it was a huge red flag."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."