Barely a day goes by without a new social media scare story hitting the news. Whether it’s a teen suicide caused by cyber-bullying or employers using Facebook to vet potential recruits, social media has a big impact on young people in the real world, as well
as the virtual one. Social media is an inescapable part of most young people’s lives today and schools can no longer ignore it, even if they’d like to. While schools have little control over what their pupils do away from the classroom, they do have a responsibility
of care during school hours. As such, it’s important for schools to consider “e-safety” and have effective guidelines for managing social media in schools.
Just as schools teach their pupils about road safety and not talking to strangers, they also need to teach children how to stay safe online. Many young people are not aware of the ‘electronic footprint’ they leave behind when they surf and post online. Revealing
too much personal information puts children at risk of harm. This is not only the very serious danger of an online predator, but also the harm young people can do to themselves by a reckless or ill-considered post. Schools should educate their pupils on how
to use the internet safely and properly and including social media in school’s ICT curriculums should be a priority. Pilot schemes advising pupils on the pitfalls of social media have already been carried out in schools in England and Wales and wider implementation
is expected soon.
Using Social Media in Schools
As students integrate the internet more and more into their studies as well as into their personal lives, schools must educate them on the implications of living online. In particular, children should understand what kind of information is safe and appropriate
to provide online and what should not be shared in such circumstances.
In addition, students should be taught how to limit access to the information they share – for example, through a clear understanding of privacy settings. With Facebook and other social media platforms constantly changing the way they share user information,
teachers also will need to stay up to date themselves in order to provide accurate information to students.
While schools can’t stop students logging on to Facebook or Twitter at home, they should seek to limit and possibly block such sites during school hours. This will not only ensure that children concentrate on their studies, but will help to limit cyber-bullying.
While real world bullying in the playground still exists, bullying is increasingly moving online where it is harder both to identify perpetrators and to assist victims.
The rise in cyber-bullying should certainly give schools cause for concern. More than 4 in 10 children have been bullied online and 7 in 10 report seeing frequent bullying via social media. Mobile phones are the most common medium for cyber-bullying, but
with over 80% of teens using a mobile phone regularly, it’s a crime that’s very difficult to detect. By prohibiting access to social media sites, schools can promote a ‘no tolerance’ policy against cyber-bullying. They should also teach pupils about the harm
caused by online bullying and urge all students to report bullying whenever – and in whatever form – they witness it.
Posting an opinion, feeling or suggestion online is not like writing it in a diary. Engaging with social media is often a public act, not just in terms of social interaction but in the eyes of the law too. Young people, by definition, are often more impulsive
and less reflective in the way they engage with social media. Too often they post first and think later, without due regard for the consequences of their actions.
The Supreme Court has already demonstrated that individuals are legally accountable for whatever they post online. For example, a person who re-tweets a comment that harms, maligns or defames can be just as culpable as the original commentator. Similarly,
in the wake of the 2011 riots, many young people received stiff penalties not only for rioting or theft, but also for inciting such behaviour through social media posts.
“Non-delegable” Duty of Care
Following a case last year, the Supreme Court has also ruled that schools owe a “non-delegable” duty of care in respect of a third party providing services. In other words, schools can be held liable for any harm caused to pupils through the provision of
services where that provision has been subcontracted to a third party. This is certainly something that schools must consider if they use outside contractors to install IT equipment. In such cases, ensuring that security and privacy settings are correctly
configured will be the legal responsibility of the school and not the external contractor.
Like all new technologies, social media can be a tool for positive as well as negative change and schools must play their part in promoting good practice. How big a role social media will come to play in the lives of future generations is hard to predict,
but it’s unlikely to decrease any time soon. Schools must provide more help for students in navigating the virtual world, as well as in understanding the real world implications of their activities.
Berg are the chosen law firm for The School Bus – a great resource for answers to a multitude of problems facing school leaders and teachers.
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(The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional legal
advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.)