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Is Social Media Causing Inappropriate Teacher-Student Relationships?

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."