Facebook “friends”

Listen in on this conversation:

Teacher 1: I hear that you friend your students on Facebook.

Teacher 2: Not exactly. I accept friend requests from current and former students. But I never initiate them.

Teacher 1: Even so, it’s a really bad idea. They’ll see all sorts of personal things about you. You could get into a lot of trouble for this. Besides, you’re not their friend — you’re their teacher !

Teacher 3: Au contraire, mon frère. Teacher 2 doesn’t put personal things on Facebook. It’s a good thing to have connections with your students outside of school. And anyway, don’t you know that “friend” doesn’t really mean “friend” on Facebook?

OK, what’s going on here? This is a composite conversation, but not a fictional one. I’ve been in the roles of Teachers 2 and 3. Let’s dissect three very different points of view about this issue. The first is exemplified in a recent misguided editorial in the Boston Globe, headlined “Teachers: Friends, not ‘friends’.” Here is an excerpt:

A new policy enacted by the Norton school board that bans teachers from becoming Facebook friends with students on social media sites is a simple lesson in common sense.

Some argue that the policy interferes with free speech and assembly rights. Others contend that teachers and students should communicate more, not less. At the college level, that may be true. But from kindergarten to high school, teachers should not need social media to reinforce their lesson plans. If a student has questions outside the classroom, email provides sufficient connection.

What we have here is a fine example of a straw-man argument. Who said that teachers “need social media to reinforce their lesson plans”? The Globe has simply invented a point of view from an imaginary opponent in order to argue against it. The issue isn’t whether we need social media; it’s simply whether it’s acceptable to accept friend requests.

Part of the problem here is the ambiguity of the word “friend.” Facebook users certainly understand the two meanings of the word. Only a naive adult could possibly confuse the two meanings. Only a naive adult could believe that a student who friends me really thinks that I’m his friend in the usual meaning of the word. Many Facebook users have a ridiculous number of “friends”; while I have only 152, one of my former students has 3187. But no one could plausibly think that she considers 3187 people to be actual friends!

I promised three very different points of view. The first one says that accepting friend requests from students is inappropriate; the second says that it’s OK; the third says that it’s something that teachers should do. (As an aside, note that many behaviors can be viewed as this sort of trichotomy. Pick a behavior; you can prohibit it, you can stay neutral, or you can encourage it.) The third point of view came to my attention twice in the past month. The first time was an article in Education Tech News, concerning the principal of All Saints Central School in Michigan. Here is an excerpt:

Principal John Hoving…said he uses Facebook to:

  • promote the school
  • connect with alumni, and
  • increase communication with parents.

Hoving also friends students who send him friend requests. As a result, some parents and students have accused him of using Facebook to monitor students’ online activity.

Notice the not-so-subtle use of the verb “accused” in the last sentence. The article goes on to show why it’s completely the wrong word choice. In reality, the majority have commended him for this connection. (Note that Hoving, like me, accepts friend requests from students but doesn’t initiate them.) Read the follow-up:

Hoving pointed out that students do not have to send him friend requests, but if they choose to — he accepts.

Hoving says if he happens to see students posting questionable content in public forums, he feels it is his responsibility — as a concerned adult — to help students understand the potential consequences of their digital activity.

Several parents and students spoke out in support of Hoving, saying they are fine with his efforts to “look out for” everyone at school.

Richard Guerry, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-phone Communication (IROC2)…posed an intriguing question: Would parents who have an issue with the principal’s actions really want him to ignore potential problems — especially when he has an opportunity to protect their children before something happens? Hoving should “be commended for caring and protecting his students,” according to Guerry.

The second time I heard this view in the past month came in a conference with the parent of one of my students. She said that she insisted that her teenage children had to friend her, just so she could monitor what they’re putting on Facebook. (Yes, I know, the privacy settings complicate this claim, but it’s still a good idea.) For similar reasons she was pleased that they friend their teachers. We talked about the anonymous Teacher 1 in the dialog above (who remained anonymous, of course), and both of us agreed that there’s a simple solution to the problem of not wanting students to see inappropriate personal information about teachers. The solution is for teachers to follow the same advice that I give to students: don’t post anything that you don’t want the whole world to see! It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason. Privacy is an illusion these days; when something is too personal for your teachers to see (if you’re a student) or too personal for your students to see (if you’re a teacher), then don’t post it! That’s my policy, and it should be yours.

In conclusion, I have to say that I suppose there’s actually a fourth point of view: that teachers should initiate friend requests. But I don’t hear anyone arguing for that.

Obviously I’m firmly with Hoving and Gerry on this issue. The Norton School Committee and the Boston Globe are badly off-base.

Categories: Life, Linguistics, Teaching & Learning, Technology