Turning over students’ social media passwords: privacy or protection?

Students at computers

Students at computers image courtesy of janniechien, Morguefile.

Earlier today, I read an article that mentioned a new law in Illinois. The law went into effect this month and concerns asking for the passwords of students who have social media accounts. According to the source I read, the new law requires school authorities to notify parents/guardians that their elementary or secondary school children may be asked to provide a password for an Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or other similar account to school officials. The passwords would be requested in certain circumstances, such as evidence that a student violated a school policy/rule (like cyberbullying). Reasonable cause would be required.

I had mixed feelings after reading this story. I’ve read heartbreaking accounts of students who have suffered from cyberbullying and it makes good sense for school districts to do their best to protect students from this type of harassment as well as potentially lethal threats. More and more, states are putting laws into position to protect students.

Today’s millennials have a lot more to face in public since easy access to social media greatly magnifies any mistakes that those preteens and teens might make as a normal part of growing up. It’s not right that this type of social media problem happens, but it’s today’s reality.

At the same time, social media offers consolation and support for the distressed. People who feel that someone has been wronged will leap to defend and console that person.

At the same time, I feel that everyone — even celebrities — has a right to privacy. When someone says or does something intended to remain private in their homes, they don’t always want it spread all over the Web and have it lasting on somebody’s server for eternity. (!) There was another story I read about a parent who shared a picture of their cute toddler on Facebook to their friends; it went viral and they didn’t want it to become viral.

So where do you draw the line between safeguarding the physical and mental health of students vs. the need to keep some information private? There’s a great saying by football coach Vince Lombardi: “Praise in public, criticize in private.”  In an age where people are increasingly liable for what they say on social media, it’s more important than ever before to carefully consider what you put online since it represents you, your family, your local organizations or your workplace.

Some criticism is acceptable if it’s constructive. Businesses with social media accounts use what their critics say to detect flaws in their products or services, so that those flaws can be eliminated and customers become happier. But those businesses, too, draw the line at personal attacks, and rightly so.

Blog readers: What are your opinions? How do you determine what poses an actual threat versus just venting in social media? How do you prevent someone’s social media rights from being abused? Let’s get talking.




Filed under Social Media

16 responses to “Turning over students’ social media passwords: privacy or protection?

  1. I can only speak for myself and that is simple: if I don’t want the whole world to see it, I don’t publish in publicly. If I just want my family to see it, that’s what email is for. I often wonder if kids should have as much access as they do. I know that won’t change, but it would be nice if they waited until they understand the risks and dangers … and had a better grip on the difference between “funny” and “hurtful.” For that matter, the difference between right and wrong.

  2. Well, I think that assigns too much power to the school system…given that they are already interfering with kids’ lives to the extent that schools are becoming more and more like prisons. Yet, I do not dismiss the seriousness of this cyberbullying and the impact it has on young people. Truthfully, I don’t know what the solution is. I still don’t think schools should be able to have access to anyone’s personal social media account–they are not the police or any other investigative entity, and they should not operate as an exception to that rule, especially when it gives them carte blanche to access any student’s account, at any time, especially without a warrant. I strongly feel that, despite the fact that it would only be requested in cases of “reasonable cause” it would be abused by said school staffers. Who establishes the “reasonable cause”? The school system, of course. The same school system that dictates that a kid not dressing to–or drugged by so-called “prescription” drugs to adhere to–a strict conformist standard is automatically labelled “(School) Public Enemy #1” (And, yes, I’ve witnessed, and even been harassed, myself, on the job at a public school.). I think this makes the faulty assumption that the people who staff public schools can automatically be trusted, themselves, with a child’s welfare. It seems to me that the school would quickly manipulate the system so they have free rein to cook up any excuse to intrude further into a kid’s life, and use it against them. Also, what’s to stop a teacher or another school employee for (“illegally”) using it as blackmail or leverage in a situation where the said staffer cannot be trusted? Why do we think teachers, etc. would refrain from cyberstalking, snooping, harassing, or otherwise subtly manipulating the kids in their care, especially when more and more stories are coming out about kids being mentally, physically, and sexually abused by people in those very same school systems. Sure, let’s give them the potential to access where the kid is and what they are doing at every moment of their lives outside of school. That’s a big danger area, sounds like. I see stories again and again on why those abusive teachers can’t even be fired, so who would stop them? It could simply be justified or swept under the rug as “reasonable cause”. It would bring the kid even more firmly under the omniscent prison-like control of the school system–a control and presence that far exceeds what the role of schools should play in young people’s lives, of any age.

    • You make some excellent points — especially on carte blanche and who monitors the monitors? Maybe a prerequisite for that “probable cause” would be a panel of 3 people or more, not just one individual. Or as you say, a warrant.

      Thank you for leaving your thoughts here. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  3. Thoughtful and well written.
    This law is very disturbing for many reasons.
    Possibly a law written and backed with the best intentions. (Cyberbullying, threats, …as you say)
    This is the world now. Everyone, adults and children, will have to deal with it.
    If children always have some authority intervening to straighten things out, they do not learn to deal. That old “sticks and stones may break my bones, but word can never hurt me” is a good thing to teach very early. Kids must be resilient enough to take ugliness directed at them (I’m rubber, you’re glue. Bounces off me and sticks to you). Learn to consider and evaluate the source, shrug it off as attacks of jealousy/desperation – products of weak and ignorant minds. Learn not to react (that drives them crazy)
    Turn it off. Walk away from fools. Find something constructive to do – volunteer so there’s little time to fret and a wiser perspective of the world is gained. Do something physical outside that makes them tired. Accomplish goals with hikes, bikes, skateboards, swimming…
    It is not easy to strengthen kids to face attacks.
    It is a complex situation.
    Adults must model and demonstrate good social media, too. Stop mean jokes and bullying behavior witness by children. And discuss high profile social media problems (celebs always are up to some foolish thing…) Lots and lots of discussions.
    Start very young: “Do unto others as you would have done to you” and “once it’s online, there’s no calling it back” – you have no control over that posted picture/information.
    We must manage ourselves. The internet is – like nature/the environment – totally neutral and unconcerned with mankind – as it should be.

  4. In cases of cyber bullying, privacy is off the table. Just as law enforcement can access our credit cards and phone records with probable cause, some judicial function should be able to do the same for social media. Perhaps children need to be taught earlier the negative effects of posting (anything). The problem is, I am not convinced they can understand it.

    • The key would be to raise awareness among the students and their families. I read a story of a police officer who came into a classroom. He had accessed their social media accounts (legally, mind you) and told them a lot of information about themselves. His point was, if I can do it, a bad person can do it too. Trust me, those students were a LOT more careful about what they posted online after his visit!

  5. Abraham Lincoln had a drawer full of letters in his desk that he never sent. They were letters of criticism and angry denunciation aimed at generals during the Civil War and politicians on both sides of the house during the Constitutional amendment struggle. He would write these diatribes and then file the letter in the drawer until the next day. He would then re-read the letter and decide whether or not to send it. Usually he didn’t. Usually he rewrote the letter with less anger and more positive messages to more effectively achieve his ends.
    Social media allows us to say whatever we want whenever we want to say it with no fear of reprisal or social ostracism. We face not approbation more than other comments being fired our way, which we can ignore if we have the strength, or cry foul and strike back against if we do not. I see comments threads on blog and news sites all the time that start out as measured intelligent thoughts and exchanges of opinion and quickly turn into flame wars, or the social media equivalent of, “AM NOT!” “ARE TOO!”
    That said, cyber-bullying is much more than “venting”, much more than a one-time gossip post. Destructive, attacking posts and negative social commentary in a public forum, should not be allowed. Make no mistake, all social media posts are one small step from being public, just ask the members of the “private” Facebook group of dental students at Dalhousie University in Halifax. IT is starting to look as if all members of that group will be censured, whether they posted anything or not. Membership is being treated as crime enough to be punished.
    Educators trying to police and protect students are treading a dangerous and slippery slope with knee-jerk reactions and the potential for over-reaction, litigation and outraged backlash from parents and students alike.

    • Ray, great points too. I can think of some people who should wait like Abraham Lincoln and not post their thoughts online!

      Although I’m not sure I agree that when someone posts something online, they are immune. Someone with enough skill could track them down.

      I hadn’t heard about the Dalhousie group. I’ll check that out.

      As another reader pointed out, turning over social media passwords has its hazards. I favor the idea of a panel review before someone has to turn over their passwords to minimize the chance of potential liability.

      It’s a tricky area to navigate. I do believe that students’ mental and physical health should come first. We’ve already had Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech; I don’t want to see future incidents like those if getting into someone’s social media could prevent them.

  6. KtKat

    As much as I am for protecting students, I believe it to be the jobs of the parents to hold their children accountable for their actions on social media. I know that in the reality of double income households it’s very difficult to keep up with your children, and your own sanity but defaulting responsibility onto the school system isn’t fair either.

    Also, I don’t believe children who aren’t responsible enough to understand the content of their posts and how it affects others/spreads around the world should be allowed on social media in the first place. I wish sites would go back to the mandatory 18yrs plus age restriction.

    In summary, while I can understand the reason behind the law, I don’t believe requiring children to surrender the passwords to their private accounts will truly solve the problem.

  7. As a teacher working with media in the classroom I share the same concerns. One solution is teach social citizenship to students right along with their ABCs.

  8. My granddaughters are very tech savvy. One of them, who happens to be gay, told me she was very careful about what she posted online because she knows employers check online writings. Perhaps schools are trying to be helpful?

    Also, I noticed that students can write whatever about a teacher, and get away with it, although it might damage the teacher’s good name. Cricketmuse has a great approach.


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