Sunday, 23 December 2012

What should you do if your primary pupils are on Facebook?

Perhaps the most flagrantly breached rule on the Internet is the age limit for using social media. The age is usually 13 (simply because that is the age in the USA above which websites can legally ask for personal data).

The risks of Facebook (FB) include children sending bullying messages, posting labelled photographs of themselves and their friends, and of course strangers making contact with them.

So as a teacher what should you do if your pupils are using it?

First of all, be careful. How do you know they are using it? Have you searched for your pupils online? If so, who authorised you to do that? Obviously, the point I am making is that what for you is an act of concern, is for another person an act of interference in what should be a matter between child and parent (and maybe for another person what you did was just short of stalking).

Secondly, if your aim is to get these illicit users off FB, you won’t win. If children are using FB they will not stop because their teacher said so, and telling them to close their accounts will result in less respect for you. Bear in mind that although the children will have lied about their age to FB, this of itself is not in breach of any UK law, and they may have done it with the support of their parents.

Deletion of accounts is not likely to be an option. Anyone finding a Facebook page belonging to a child under 13 is encouraged by FB to report it, and FB will then remove the account. However a teacher is on uncertain ground in making such a report, and in any case a child can set up another account immediately.

I'd suggest the following three-pronged approach.

1) Inform parents that the school advises that children not be allowed to have FB accounts. The school will be unable to support in the event that a child who has such an account, in contravention of FB and school regulations, is bullied using this medium. Words to this effect could be part of your school cyber-bullying policy.

2) But far better than talking to parents, deal with FB membership through educating the children. Repeatedly explain to the children (from Y5 upwards) about the potential for hurting people. Warn them that, although hurtful and bullying comments don’t leave scars and bruises, anything they write on FB leaves a permanent record. Harrassment, slander and verbal abuse are illegal acts, and children of 10 upwards are considered responsible for their own actions. Warn the more savvy ones that even if they have maximum privacy settings, a court can order FB to hand over any posts.

3) While making it clear that the school does not condone FB accounts, educate children in the risks of having accounts completely open. Address the issue directly by making up an imaginary child’s unprotected FB page and showing it on the board or handing out as hard copy. Ask the children what they know about the owner of this account, what the child likes, what they dislike, what their habits are, where they ‘hang out’. Through role play show how easy it would be for them to be fooled into a meeting with a stranger. Hopefully this will shock them into adjusting their privacy settings, but follow it up with a letter home anyway.

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