Students and Social Networking: Should You ‘Friend’ Your Students?

If you are part of a social network, you may have already had this experience: a current or former student attempts to “friend” you online. Whether you keep a professional profile or offer a more casual representation of yourself online, keep the following teaching concerns in mind.

  • How much do you want your students to know about you? Do you want your students to see pictures of you, read messages sent by your friends, or know whether or not you have a partner or children? Privacy settings on social networking sites can be complicated, but you can choose to deny students access to certain information if you so choose.
  • How much do you want to know about your students? By connecting with a student on the Internet, they not only have access to more information about you, but you often have access to more (and perhaps too much) information about them. If you are “friended” by a current student, think about how seeing pictures of them partying over the weekend might influence how you treat them in class, how you assess their work, or recommendation letters you may write in the future.
  • Some students may not use social networking sites. Be careful that your “friending” of one student does not alienate other students in your course who may not be able to communicate with you in the same ways. All students have access to your office, but not all may have access to high-speed Internet and a Facebook or MySpace profile.

Try the following recommendations for setting clear professional boundaries that will help you and your students navigate online communication:

  • Be clear about your professional boundaries upfront. I talk with my students on the first day of class about my social networking policy because I have received “friend” requests from students consistently over the past year. Students may not think about the complications that such requests can bring, so talking with them openly can illustrate your boundaries right away.
  • Know your privacy settings. Familiarizing yourself with the privacy settings on any of the social networking sites that you are a part of is a crucial component of keeping your private life private, if that is your goal. For student “friends,” I have created a special category that allows them to see only limited information such as how to contact me through an email address not affiliated with my university in case I relocate elsewhere.
  • Don’t jump on the social networking bandwagon in the first place. It may seem like “everybody’s doing it,” but that doesn’t mean that you have to as well. If you haven’t joined a social networking site, consider opting out to avoid these kinds of boundary issues with students.
  • Do your research. Social networking has been identified as a pedagogical tool, but there are privacy issues involved. If you decide to use an online site to connect with students intentionally, check with your school’s privacy rules and think carefully about the issues raised above.

Kathryn Linder is a PhD candidate in the Department of Women Studies at The Ohio State University, and a doctoral intern at the University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching.