The risks of social networking

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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Social media has brought a new way of communicating into our schools. It has also brought a risk of us sharing too much. Suzanne O'Connell seeks expert advice for school leaders

Almost every day there seem to be stories and allegations against staff and schools that have some links to the use of social media. We are told about inappropriate messages between teacher and pupil and behaviour outside school that is not considered acceptable for a teacher.

It is not that people are any worse than they used to be, there are just more methods of knowing what they do.Social media can be just another way of showing people behaving badly, and, of course, behaving well. Guidance from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Management of Social Networking and Online Safety in Schools, suggests that there are four main strands to this:

  • Cyber-bullying by pupils.
  • Misuse by staff: school issues.
  • Misuse by staff: "disrepute".
  • External criticism and complaints.

Guy Dudley is senior specialist advisor at the NAHT. He has spoken to many school leaders who have found themselves in difficult situations as a result of the use of social media. He emphasises that it is the school leader's responsibility to ensure that the right systems are in place to minimise the likelihood of problems occurring.

Misuse by staff

Staff can misuse the internet in relation to school issues. This can include disclosing information about incidents and events in the school and making critical comments about colleagues or other members of the school community. Sometimes "misuse" relates to a member of staff's behaviour and actions outside school. It might refer to inappropriate images and comments and their implications. It is not only the teacher involved who can be brought into disrepute but the whole-school community.

"You need to have a zero-tolerance to this," explained Mr Dudley. "Your policies and procedures need to be very clearly laid out not just in your social media policy but also in your school's disciplinary policy, staff conduct guidelines and behaviour policies. Staff must be absolutely clear what the rules are."

Schools originally had IT policies. They then needed an Acceptable Use Policy and now a social media policy is recommended. It's not just having it written down, though. Staff must be aware of what the policies contain and be applying it too: "Staff need to be walked through the policies and staff should sign a declaration to say they have read and understood it," Mr Dudley continued.

Having this declaration in place is a safeguard for the school if a member of staff does not follow procedures: "You can then refer back to the rules and the fact that the member of staff has indicated that they are aware of them."

Mr Dudley recommends a hard line in making sure that policy is implemented. If a policy is breached then the headteacher should draw attention to this and can conduct an investigation. In some circumstances this could lead to a disciplinary hearing. It is important that staff recognise just how dangerous breaking social media protocol can be and a firm stance from the headteacher reminds them of this.

Some of the guidance schools should include in a social media policy is common sense. Teachers should not be "friends" with pupils on social media and they must be aware that any posting they make provides information not only about them as a person but them as a teacher.

Staff need to be made aware that it isn't only the use of social media when they are in school that matters, it also applies to things done on laptops when teachers take them home as they are still school property. Schools can take action if they have been used inappropriately off the school premises. It is not like some other policies that start at 9am and finish at 3pm.

The policy must be efficiently communicated and this is all part of awareness-raising in the school. There are not that many policies now that are really compulsory, but having a suite of policies to protect you and your school from the effects of badly handled and malicious social media is vital.

External criticism and complaints

When it is a teacher in the school who has not complied with school procedure it can be addressed, but in some cases, the school might not directly have much control over the individual and their comments. It can be an ex-pupil or an ex-member of staff, for example, who has harboured a grudge. In these cases, the school can report the behaviour. The school community can also be made aware that their online activity may no longer be under the school's control but will not endear them to future organisations or employers.

Schools can also include expectations of parents in their home-school agreements. Schools can be proactive and create their own forum where parents can directly raise their concerns instead of voicing them online. However, etiquette is still important and any forum needs to be carefully moderated. What's most important in the case of complaints is to move the dialogue from online to face-to-face where the issue can be resolved.

Someone to help

One of the difficulties for many headteachers is keeping up with the pace of change in social media itself. Mr Dudley said: "For many headteachers getting to grips with social media is actually quite difficult and they may not fully understand how it works."

But social media is not going to go away and, as such, it is important that headteachers find someone to help them with it.
"You really can't take your eye of the ball," Mr Dudley added. "It needs to be constantly monitored and this is difficult for even the media-competent head to do."

Although for older heads understanding the way that social media works can cause problems, the younger head has other difficulties. They may be much more familiar with how to use it but also use it more themselves and be vulnerable to malicious comments and sharing.

Mr Dudley advises that headteachers should make someone responsible within their team for keeping oversight of social media, updating policy documents and raising staff awareness through staff training. Even with this advice in place, he recommends that the headteacher still keeps track of what's going on: "It's important that the head remains vigilant, even if someone else has been appointed to help with it. It's too important to delegate completely."

Social media can be a force for good but it needs very careful management and clear rules for the whole-school community. Consulting with stakeholders, sharing the development of policy and ensuring that everyone knows what's expected are vital for healthy social media use.

  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former school headteacher.

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