Understanding the Potential Pitfalls of Social Media

Whether it’s the professor who creates Twitter backchannels in his courses, the admissions counselor who uses Facebook to engage prospective students, or the librarian who tweets about available resources in the library, higher education professionals have come up with a variety of creative ways to use social media both in and outside of the classroom.

“Why is social media so popular in higher education? Well, this is one of those cases where we have to be where our students are,” said Deborah Gonzalez, Esq., founder of Law2sm, a legal consulting firm specializing in digital and social media. “In many ways, we see social media as being a different world, but our students see it as just a part of their world. It’s not separate from everyday … it’s just another way of them expressing themselves. So if that’s the world they’re living in, we have to find ways to engage them in that world.”

But amidst all the innovative uses of social media lurk the potential for lawsuits and other legal complications — both for the institution and the individuals using social media.

During the recent online seminar How Administrators Can Avoid Social Media Landmines, Gonzalez and Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, outlined a number of social media scenarios that pose potential risk with regards to freedom of speech, privacy, accessibility, copyrights, intellectual property, and cyber-bullying.

The 90-minute seminar also included a list of do’s and don’ts faculty and administrators should consider before adopting social media. Here’s just some of what Gonzalez and Jenkins recommended:

Don’t … set up a class Facebook page over which you have no control.

Do …

  • Follow your institution’s established guidelines or policies regarding use of social media
  • State the purpose of the site on the site itself
  • Educate students in the class regarding the site and its purpose
  • Include a disclaimer on the site: “Comments may be taken down if not consistent with the stated purpose of the site.”
  • Monitor the site carefully and consistently

Don’t … forget that Federal and state copyright laws governing use of the protected materials on the Internet apply to all forms of social media.

Do …

  • Become familiar with copyright laws as they apply to social media
  • Always follow your institution’s policy regarding copyright
  • Use links instead of posting full articles
  • Educate your students regarding copyright laws and policies

Don’t … act as though you represent the institution on your Facebook page or Twitter account.

Do …

  • Obtain written permission from the institution before using its logo or mascot on your social media sites
  • Use the institution’s logo or mascot only on sites that pertain to your official job description, such as a class Facebook page—not on personal sites
  • Identify opinions expressed on your sites as your own, making it clear that you are not speaking for the institution

Do … make sure that your institution has a clear and thorough policy regarding the use of social media on campus.

And finally, don’t … avoid using social media just because doing so comes with its own set of guidelines and potential problems. Social media, used correctly, offers many unique opportunities for reaching our students.