Facebook Friending 101 for Schools

Facebook has added an incredible complexity to our lives and relationships for one simple reason: it is in writing. The courts have always put things "in writing" in higher esteem above word of mouth. Now that we are inundated with video, text, and photographs and a set of complex relationships - we end up with things "in writing" that are distributed far beyond our true "friends" into  places that get us in trouble.

I don't have all the answers but am wrestling with this problem and want to lay out the facts so you and I can become co-travelers on this journey. I speak from experience, however, having two significant experiences under my belt with the school in this arena, know that there are things that I cannot say about situations that come in out what I share. It can happen because it DOES. This isn't theory.

Defining "Friend"
Anyone who has seen The Social Network finds Mark Zuckerberg's use of the word "friend" ironic as through the course of the movie we see him lose the few friends he has in order to gain the millions that are online. I've heard it is a mischaracterization (come on what billionare 20-something year old doesn't havea  lot of friends ;-) but nevertheless friend doesn't mean what you think.

In "the South" we are taught to be friendly from the moment our Mom's tell us as a drooling tot to "say hello because he just said hello to you." Be friendly. So, we think we have to "friend" everyone who "friends" us - it is good manners, right?


Let's get this straight. We are talking about Facebook Friends (I call them FF's in class) and a Facebook friend has access to everything you put on your wall (unless you "list" them - more on that later.) It means that if you "friend" someone who hates you that they will be crawling your page and your life looking for something bad about you. It also means that if you "friend" your students and you skip school one day and post "I took a sick day to go to the mall." that you've just ratted yourself out -- in writing. Everyone will know, that sort of word travels fast.

I use my Facebook for my professional life.  I don't friend students. I only friended my husband and I definitely don't friend my kids. Let's look at why.

Basic Friend and Publication Structure
How "Friending" Distributes Your Work
You are on Facebook. Your settings determine how people view your content. Check them thoroughly and every month or so to make sure you know what is in there and UNDERSTAND them.

Friends (FF)
Your friends have access to everything you publish unless you override the settings. If you friend someone - they are in your inner circle or your FF's. Do you trust them?

Facebook has allowed "listing" which lets you specify "friends" "coworkers" "high school friends" etc. and specify what content goes to which. I'm not smart enough to keep up with the complexity myself  I started eagerly using lists the day they were released, however, have found that they didn't work as stated and and my primary interface for Facebook (my itouch) doesn't give me access to lists when I accept a friend request there - so it has been pretty useless. It has been difficult in implementation for me.

Update: 3/29/2011 My friend Suzie Nestico (see her amazing new blog Coal Cracker Classroom) uses this feature and has graciously given me some screenshots to show how to hide lists from one another. I'm still not sure how to hide both ways. (i.e. hide students from friends - but I also want to hide friends from students - I guess there is a way to do this.) Also, it is vital that every person you friend get put on a LIST for this to work. And some interfaces (like handheld Facebook apps) don't give the option to list the friend as of the writing of this post. Finally, this is just how to hide specific updates from specific people and the primary concern is still having the two way avenue opened between students and my adult friends.

This is how to make a status update that is hidden from certain people.
Hiding updates from specific people. How many jobs would this have saved? Not sure if you can get at this feature in a handheld app.

Obviously, Facebook realizes this as a New York Times article this week reveals that part of Facebook's strategy is "friend clusters" but that is yet to be determined. The article claims that this will return us to "Facebook intimacy" which is nonexistent in the behemoth we have on our computers today.

If you are "friends only" then only your friends can see your content. Simple enough. It has nothing to do with whether they can see each other's content.

UPDATE 3/28/2011: I have been told there is a setting in the comments below that will allow friends not to see each other. At this point, I've been through privacy settings (as I did before I wrote the post Friday) and cannot find this. If this feature is hidden or possible, please let me know but as of now it is not something available in my Facebook privacy settings.

Friends of Friends (FOF)
This is where we get in trouble. When a person has their settings as "friends of friends" then the friends of their friends can see their pages. In my work with students and adults - most people haven't gone in and edited the new, improved privacy features that Facebook announced last year that give you control over these three areas. Most people around here are publishing to FOF's.

Studies show the average number of FF's we have is 120-130 (New York Times Dec 2010). So, if you have 120 friends and those friends have 120 friends, your page is potentially being viewed by 14,400 people who probably have some loose relationship with you -- If you have your settings to be Friends of Friends.

But here is the trick. YOU may have your page set to "Friends only," however, you have no control over your FF's pages. If your students or the adults you have friended have their pages set to FOF or Public then your FF can go through your list of Facebook friends and see each other's pages.  

You are a living hyperlink between all of your Facebook Friends (FF's).

This is what everyone can see. According to Facebook (May 2010) you

"can't hide your name, profile picture, network and gender (if you provide this info)." 

Be careful on your profile picture, many get tripped up just by posting an innappropriate profile photo. Everyone sees it.

Also, your " facebook network" means  the college, school, or other group you are part of. You are linked to your colleges, schools, etc. and so are your students. Everyone sees this. So, basically someone can pull up your school network and see the profile pics and gender and names of everyone at your school. (Does this bother anyone but me?)

You CAN set your page to public, which means that all of Facebook's users and everyone on the web can see your page. Kids can set it to public as well and many have.

How does this impact Teachers?

Teachers become "human hyperlinks" between groups of people.

 When a teacher uses ONE account to friend students - the teacher becomes a living hyperlink between students, adults, families, etc. This is where we get in trouble.
  • Do we want everyone to know the names of our students? 
  • If our students have their privacy set to public - do we want to accept responsibility that everyone in our friend's network is on the up and up and not a "creeper?" 

We all know and have probably FF'd someone who is strange. You have just accepted responsibility for all of your FF's and are a living hyperlink.

This is why teachers who really want to be on Facebook often set up a "school account" and just friend students with it. But now, remember, you are a link between students. (I'm not saying don't do it, I just want you to understand what this MEANs.)

A true-er picture of the world
 But as most teachers say,

"I want to be part of their lives and all of these other adults are friends with students - why shouldn't I be. Aren't you just talking "theory" here - the real world is that students and adults are friends all over the place!!"

Yes, this is true. The reality is that in the mess of privacy settings and indiscriminate uneducating friending that we do have a mass mess.

Say, an adult with a mental disorder has an argument with another adult and flames on Facebook posting profanity and horrible pictures. Their settings are "friend of friend" - anyone connected to that adult as a friend can see the page. They can be exposed by human hyperlink to trash. It happens and has happened.

If that "human hyperlink" happens to be a school or a teacher - parents can blame the teacher or school for their role in exposing students to that content. I don't like this but even if a child is friend with 100 adults and could get there to that content 100 ways, the school is one of those links and they expect us to be responsible. They blame us. I've taken the phone call, readers, I'm not making this up.

Parents are a Big Part of the Problem
Parents often don't realize that they are causing safety concerns when they friend their own children.
 I believe that if a parent wants to friend their child that they should create ONE facebook account just for friending their child. They should have just as many friends as they have children. Period. If they want to monitor their child's account that is set to "friends only" they should do this.

Otherwise, when a parent friends their child - they can also see everything for their children's friends who are set to "FOF" or "public" but also their child can see everything for the adults in Mom's or Dad's network. Likewise, when the friends of parents can see the child - that is too much information for me as a parent. My job is to protect my children and since I use Facebook more as a professional than personal, it is an overlap I cannot allow. 

I know of parent "creepers" that get into everything going on in a school. These are the ones that friend their children and then proceed to look at all of their friends on an ongoing basis. They know everything to the point that I think it is unhealthy. 

I've also seen kids who are defriended because of creeper parents. Parents have a responsible role to play here. Kids shouldn't be the Jersey-Shore entertainment for adults who don't have anything better to do. But, they should also understand about posting innappropriate content.

Why does sharing matter? A Real-Life Case Study.

I'm going to give a live example with names changed. 

Let's say that we have a large project with kids from multiple schools and one child has a funny name- let's call him "Zipper" and posts a really strange picture of himself as his profile. Kids from another school find this hilarious and start making fun of "Zipper" both in the chat and on the project.

Teachers intervene and put a stop to the behavior to which the student's who are picking on Zipper say "we're just going to take it to Facebook" to which the teacher says "If you take this to Facebook, there will be consequences." Of course, the kids laugh it off -- my school on Facebook, not going to happen.

Zipper now knows what is up and refuses the friend request from these students. (How many "Zipper"s are there on Facebook.) So the kids making fun of Zipper look at Zipper's network and see his school. They go through the school and friend Zipper's friends and ONE girl who has TMF's (too many friends) friends them. She friends everyone including Zipper and these kids making fun of Zipper. She has become a human hyperlink.

Zipper has not realized that his updates are set to Friend of Friend and gets a new cell phone number. He goes in and updates his cell phone number which is posted to his wall. The kids making fun of him and his name are watching Zipper's wall and see his phone number. They start texting him. One bold student calls him three times and leaves a message. 

This happens all in a 24 hour period. Now, how did this turn out?

Zipper's friends took screenshots and brought them to Zipper's teacher. Zipper brought his cell phone and in let the teacher hear the messages (he deleted the first two.) Zipper's teacher takes the documentation and sends it to the school of the students who are cyberbullying Zipper - because that is what has happened in this case. Fortunately, the school which housed the students conducting themselves in this way was a visionary school - the vice principal was involved and put the kids on suspension with notification if they contacted Zipper in any way they would be expelled.   The students were removed from the project and given an alternate assignment while the rest of the project continued.

Zipper's teacher helped him set his Facebook privacy settings, delete his cell phone, and spent time with the whole class using this as a powerful teachable moment on Friends of Friends AND sharing too much information. Everyone in the class set their page to FF only except for two who just didn't want to.

Zipper's teacher notified the principal and his parents and let them know what was happening.

36 hours - issue resolved.

This real-life case scares the dickens out of administrators but it happens. To be ready for this, I think that schools should:
  • Consider the policy for friending and educate teachers and staff. (If some are actually TELLING kids to friend them based upon their role at the school - you have HUGE issues and they need to consider having a separate account.)  Tell them HOW they can friend students not that they CAN'T in any cases. You're not living in reality if you think you can stop it altogether, particularly if faculty have their own children at the school.
  • EDUCATE EDUCATE EDUCATE. It is not an option to ignore facebook. Educate parents, staff, students. Have Facebook Fridays and help kids review their privacy settings (with permission from parents.) You can't talk about this issue enough.
  • Consider multiple accounts for yourself and staff. Thus far, Facebook's efforts in this area have been lip service, in my opinion. They admit the problem is messy.Educators should listen. You don't want to risk being the human hyperlink in the equation of the problems that WILL not MIGHT but WILL happen between students, adults, etc. Faculty can also have pages to communicate with kids and NOT friend students. This is a great middle ground I recommend.
  •  You should get on Facebook. yes, I said it. How can you understand it unless you use it yourself. Decide the purpose for your Facebook account and stick to it. Administrators and teachers not using it at all don't understand it. It is like people telling me how to raise my kids who don't have any of their own.
  • Have a Facebook Page for your school. This is a safe way to get your information about your school from YOU - otherwise the grapevine on Facebook will do it for you. (I'll share how to do this in the next week or two.)
  • Consider a digital citizenship education program like the Digiteen program, a nonprofit that I run, or Common Sense media or Microsoft's excellent Family Safety Resource or the many other resources out there. If you have driver's ed you should have digital citizenship education. Period.
  • Teach kids how to Screenshot. "Stop Block and Tell" sounds nice but it is WRONG!! It is Stop, Screenshot, Block, Tell, and SHARE! (See my free downloadble 5 Steps to Internet Safety (for non commercial use) - you may also buy these posters at my CafĂ© Press Store or contact me for bulk printing discounts.) They need to be ready for WHEN not IF issues happen.
  • Partner with those in global collaboration who have an active role in handling projects and the interface between schools so that issues like that of Zipper above can be dealt with quickly.
  • Educate yourself. These issues will be dealt with by administrators and teachers the world over for the forseeable future.
  • Look at Kidswirl for kids, parents, and faculty. This is an excellent option that my students and I have tested. They have some excellent privacy settings. Give a good alternative to Facebook.

And truthfully, Facebook can handle some issues like this. I know of kids as young as 7 on Facebook (with parental knowledge) - the conditions say you are supposed to be 13. If they have to network, try Kidswirl.

I think that Facebook should be able to block the searching of K12 networks when certain types of behavior are seen. There are ways to ferrett out innappropriate use and we know they are tracking our clicks for goodness sakes. But, don't expect it.

Face it, if your kids and school are going to be using Facebook safely, it is up to you!

Remember your noble calling.

This is the first in a series of posts about Social media for schools.
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