Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Throughout campus and everywhere you look, you’ll find students and teachers engaged in meaningful and fulfilling relationships. But not on Facebook.

With the complexities of teenage years, the unusual nature of boarding school life, and the rapid pace of technological change, you might see why last fall we established a social media policy. At its heart, the policy states that students should not be “friended or followed” online by Deerfield faculty or staff—and vice versa—on any of the major social networks.

In addition to this “let’s not be friends” policy, we updated our rulebook to remind students that their online behavior should reflect the same standards of honesty, respect, and consideration that they use face-to-face. We have incorporated an annual school meeting presentation about the risks of social media.

While our “no friending” policy might seem old-fashioned, we’ve left the door open to smaller sites and apps. Students and teachers trade songs on Pandora and Spotify, they comment on each other’s Goodreads accomplishments, they share photos on Instagram, and they encourage each other on sites like Strava and MapMyRun. And they text–a lot. We think this strikes a good balance, providing the opportunity for competency and camaraderie online, but eliminating the blurring of lines between student and teacher that can result from a Facebook news feed.

Above all, we remind students that they should consider everything posted online to be “public and permanent”—regardless of privacy settings—and we share experts’ advice on how to avoid some less obvious pitfalls:

  • Don’t “like” everything. The scam of “like farming” abounds: something innocuous is presented for “liking,” and then the catalog of “likers” is sold to a third party for marketing purposes—or worse.
  • Don’t just click “Ok.”  When you click without thinking, you are often providing access to your contact lists and your exact GPS location. Most smartphones automatically embed GPS coordinates in the photos they take—and those coordinates are preserved when those photos are shared online; that’s fine for a photo at the Eiffel Tower, but perhaps not okay for photos taken of children at home.
  • If you read about something that sounds “incredible” or “unbelievable” then it very well may be!  Missing person reports, outrage at Facebook privacy changes, and stories about people doing terrible/great things are often hoaxes. (See “like farming,” above!) We find snopes.com to be a good source for fact checking chain letters and viral Facebook postings.

With this article we’re adding to our social media approach and asking parents to be sure to “friend and follow” their own children online. If you aren’t already following your kids, I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding experience—and a great way to stay in touch with their busy lives on campus.

Above all, we remind our students—and ourselves—that the responsibilities of character don’t end online. While the landscape of social networks has its pitfalls, it also has its peaks—and students can be leaders in this virtual world just as they are in the physical one. They need to care for each other and for their principles, stand firm in the face of ignorance and hate, and set an example of tolerance and inclusion. These are the lessons that social media can carry away from Deerfield and for which, I hope, your children will be the couriers.

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