Student Names on Public Web Sites

The surge in the use of social media, the desire for authentic assessment and real-world projects, and the emergence of ubiquitous access to the Internet has brought the subject of how to balance reasonable student access to online resources and their personal security to the forefront of discussions in many classrooms, board rooms, and living rooms.

In the Unites Stated, children under the age of thirteen are prohibited from using most online services by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. So by law, children 12 and under are not using Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, et al. Hmm.

Facebook Users by Age and Gender

Facebook Users by Age and Gender. No One Under 13. Yeah, right!

Most school’s Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) read like laundry lists of what students are not supposed to do online. Keeping such policies up-to-date is a nightmare, for it seems every over month some new use of the Internet comes along that the policy doesn’t cover.

The result is is that the AUP gets longer and longer. Students, who tend not to read such policies anyway, continue to use and innovate as new online services become available, and schools wring their hands and issue more rules.

Schools and parents are caught in the middle of all of this, wanting to abide by the law and do what is right for their students and children. It is in the area of determining what is “right” where controversy takes root. For some, what is “right” is black and white, with no shades of gray, no negotiating based on the individual differences between and among children. It’s simply easier to have a one-size fits all set of policies and procedures.

But educators are supposed to take individual differences into account in their teaching, and most do every day. Teachers realize the need to vary instructional approaches based on a multitude of factors, and many do it with such great grace and ease that we may not even notice.

And yet when it comes to school policies, it seems as if many school administrators stop being educators and become, what? Cops? Judges? Executioners?

Clearly most school administrators don’t want to cease to be educators at any point in their role within the school, including the enforcement of school policies. But it is hard to show any flexibility without being accused of favoritism. I understand the allure of “one size fits all” and “zero tolerance” policies. They just don’t make sense.

So it is that we come to the point of this whole post: What should schools do about students and their presence in the online world?

Most schools have media policies determining the circumstances under which a child may be identified by name in publications, including online publications. Identifying a child by name, especially when accompanied by a photo, is generally considered to be verboten unless permission has been granted by the child’s parents or legal guardians. The idea is to prevent strangers from using such information as means to approach the child for purposes of abduction or worse. Who can argue with that?

But has the online world turned this practice into a relic of the past?

Millions of photos, complete with captions, are on Flickr, Picassa, Facebook, and MySpace. While many are available only to the poster’s “friends,” the definition of  friend varies widely among users, and friends of friends may still have access to this information. Once children reach the age of 13 and legally have access to these sites, many of them may post captioned or tagged photos of themselves and their friends, which may or may not be available to the general public.

Added to this are the officially sanctioned photos in events covered by the press, including the arts, athletics, and all forms of public events, academic fairs, and other competitions—all of which end up on media web sites. “Security through obscurity,” at least when it comes to keeping images of oneself private, is becoming increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible.

My advice to educators is not to throw out all of their policies and guidelines, but to engage in a discussion of their relevance in the face of new technologies and social norms. Don’t despair about there being nothing you can do when, in fact, these changes represent a wonderful opportunity to engage parents and students in deep and meaningful conversation about the changing landscape of privacy and anonymity.

2 thoughts on “Student Names on Public Web Sites

  1. Greg Stevens

    Super important topic in my elementary school. Having local installs of WordPress and institution accounts with Wikispaces and Google Apps for Ed changes the under 13 limit, does it not? Our students have lots of online accounts, many with onerous security settings to maintain the safety of a walled garden. Unfortunately, the garden walls are more like a failing dike letting the water out, not in. I don’t have enough fingers to plug all the leaks. As you suggest our daily ventures online seem to exceed the vision of our acceptable use policy. We’re not intentionally exposing student information to strangers. It’s just a lot of activity to keep under wraps.

  2. sjtaffee Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Greg. The privacy shortcomings of the various web services you mentioned are a product of their market focus on adults, and indeed on trying to actually expose as much data as they can about adults to advertisers.

    This is what’s led to the development of more school friendly services such as Edmodo.

    But…. as much Edmodo may try to mimic Facebook, students know that it is not Facebook. For kids who have no alternative, it’s great, but they also want “the real thing.”

    What I wish Facebook and other age-restricted web sites would do is develop a robust educational offering with verifiable DOB information for students that can allow privacy settings to change – subject to okay by students who are of age, parents, educators, or a combination thereof – as students grow up.

    Google Apps for Education is pretty darn good, I think, since their terms of service provide more stringent privacy protection all of their users, regardless of age, than does their consumer version.

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