I’ve enjoyed reading the thought-provoking perspectives of Anthony Centore and Michelle Wade on the conundrum of handling social networking on the Internet and professional discretion. I avoided the dilemma for some time by refusing to even allow myself a Facebook account. I had heard too many horror stories about teachers and school counselors who were vilified for pictures others had tagged them in, for misinterpreted posts, or for friending students. Not that I have a questionable lifestyle by any means, but it just didn’t seem worth the risk if I didn’t even know what I was missing. My husband ended up setting up a Facebook account for me thinking I would enjoy the ease of keeping in touch with family and friends. He was right. However, now I had to worry about students finding me, viewing my profile, and requesting friendship.
When I’m teaching, I’m very serious about utilizing instructional time, so any socialization and rapport building occurs within it. Therefore, my students don’t end up knowing more about me than my marital status and some things I enjoy doing. They don’t know my political or religious views, what my friends and family are like, or what I may find funny. I wouldn’t mind if they did. I just don’t find it relevant to their learning. When I’m counseling in a school, students may learn that I am married and that I like skiing in the winter and kayaking in the summer, based on posters or pictures in my office. Again, the rest just isn’t relevant. It’s more important for my students to know what kind of person I am, as opposed to my personal information. As long as they know that I am accessible, kind, understanding, and willing to help, that is the essential.
Kids are very Internet savvy and they will find the teachers and counselors they want to, even if we alter our names. I do not have anything to hide within my profile, pictures, or postings on Facebook. I simply do not agree with friending students of any age. When students ask if I have Facebook, I tell them I do. They would find me anyway if they looked. When they ask if they can friend me, we talk about it. Generally, the conversation runs the same way. We decide that if they have questions about class or if they need a recommendation for college or a job down the line, they can email me. There’s really no reason to be friends on Facebook while they’re in school. And I’m honest about my opinion that I, as a teacher or counselor, should not be friends with students. There are certainly teachers and school counselors who disagree with me. I know some who even use it for instructional purposes. Still, I have a valid opinion, so when students respond by citing such and such teacher they’re already friends with, I can simply explain my views to them and ask that they accept them. My consolation is that when they are in college and if they find they still want to stay in touch, they can friend me then. Still, I don’t necessarily want to see pictures and posts of college students, even if they are adults, but at least I don’t have any qualms about the ethics of the teacher-student / counselor-student relationship boundaries.
I think there is a huge difference between the professional discretion required when handling adult clients versus handling students and other minors. Everything Anthony and Michelle stated still applies to students in terms of utilizing privacy settings to their fullest, being mindful of posts and pictures, and discussing concerns and boundaries with them so that no one feels put off or ignored. Ultimately, I will have a conversation with students as many times as they need when Internet social networking issues arise and I will always treat them honestly and sensitively, but I will never become Facebook friends with a student currently enrolled in a middle or high school…unless it’s one of my little cousins of course!
Kristy L. Carlisle is a school counselor and a mental health counselor in training at Rider University. Her interests include protecting children from cyber-bullying and from food addiction.