Dumb as a Post? Parents Posting Pictures

Parents are increasingly using social media to communicate with one another and share photos and videos of events in their lives–events which involve their children and their children’s friends and classmates. These events may be private, held on weekends or after school, and in the privacy of someone’s home or backyard. Or the events may involve a club sport at a local ball field or gymnasium. Sometimes the media may be collected by a parent who is chaperoning a school field trip, attending a school arts performance, or visiting the school for a special event.

Some parents express concern that their child’s image is available on the Internet, posted by a parent of a classmate of their child, and want the school to do something about it.

Most schools have privacy policies which determine if an how they can use images of their students on their public website or print communications. Should these policies extend to parents who photograph or videotape events and subsequently post this content on the Internet? This question is at the heart of a current debate within schools.

This question is a twist on the doctrine of in loco parentis, a legal term which translates as “in place of the parent,” and is often applied to schools to require that schools act in the best interest of the student.1 In loco parentis is designed to allow third parties to act in instances when the parent is not readily available, such as when a child is away at school. Implied in this is an understanding that parents do, of course, retain their own rights and responsibilities at all other times. Thus, it is ironic that parents should be asking schools to intervene in behaviors that involved one another, and only tangentially their children. Parents should not ask schools to act as mediators between them and other parents.

Nonetheless, parents may try to enlist the help of schools in mitigating such issues. And it would be irresponsible for educators to not respond in some manner when well meaning parents raise issues about the safety of their children. So what’s the correct action?

  • Respond to the parents that you understand their concerns, and then reiterate your policies regarding use of social media in the classroom, to promote the school, and your school’s policies regarding confidentiality. This establishes that unauthorized or inappropriate posts by school personnel and students will not be tolerated.
  • Let the parents know that the your school does have a responsibility to educate the parents about the use of social media by young people, and that you are prepared to offer parent education seminars in this area. This sets the stage for appropriate follow-up meetings, and that you are share a common interest in social media and their children.
  • Let parents know that while the posting of media by parents is an important issue, it is should addressed by the body best equipped to deal with it: the school’s parent association. This takes you out of the position of having to play referee in what could be a contentious situation. Imagine a scenario that place freedom-of-speech and association on one side, versus child safety on the other. Parents can and should work out these agreements amongst themselves.
  • If a school’s practice is for administrators or teachers to attend parent association meetings, or if some of them also happen to have their own children in the school, then they need to be very clear while participating in the meeting that they are wearing their parent “hat” and not their “educator” hat.
  • The meeting should be facilitated by the parent association leadership or a parent who is both Internet-savvy and possesses groups facilitation skills. It is important that all sides be heard, and a consensus be built.
  • The outcome of the meeting, minutes, guidelines, etc. should be widely disseminated throughout the parent community.
  • The leadership of the parent association should be called upon to deal with any future issues about parents who are violating the written or spoken agreements.

Living in what is becoming a more connected, transparent society brings with it changes in privacy norms that many find troubling. While parents may beam with pride when their child’s photo is in the local sports section having scored the winning goal, they may be freaked out when that same photo is shared on Facebook, and thereby available to a national or global audience and not just those in their hometown. We’re all feeling our way along this new avenue of communication. By keeping our wits about us, knowing what is our problem and what is not our problem, and helping one another deal with challenges like adults, we’ll be fine. And so will our kids.

Several related posts that may be of interest:

Should You Trademark Your School? – how intellectual property law can help a school from unauthorized use of its logo

Guidelines for Student Publications on the Web – suggestions for when, and when not, to use student names on web sites

Social Networking Guidelines for School Employees – suggestions for regulating how faculty and staff use social media

What Schools Should Do When They Lose Control of Social Media – approaches schools should take when parents or the general public misrepresent the school using social media

Parents, Social Media, and School Messaging – how to engage with parents as partners in social media

Social Networking Guidelines for School Communications – suggestions for how your school communications can be enhanced through social media

Postcards from the Net – the changing practices of privacy in the Internet age

  1. While I was a college student in the 1960′s, the doctrine of in loco parentis was invoked to impose curfews and other limits on student behavior not prohibited by law. Such uses of in loco parentis have largely disappeared from many colleges and universities.
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