High School Facebook Confession Pages: Problem or Symptom?

18 Apr

FB Confessions Shot 1

Anonymous online confession pages for students are nothing new. Juicycampus launched in 2007 with the goal of enabling “online anonymous free speech on college campuses”. They were joined in 2008 by College ACB.com which peaked with over 900,000 views in a single day in 2010. Even then, these services were controversial as schools tried to ban them because many of the posted confessions hurt the school’s image while proponents promoted their positive benefits. What no one can deny is that the need to share anonymously is deep-seated.

Why Do Students Use Them?

FB Confessions 2

We’re willing to be more open and honest when we’re assured anonymity and that honesty helps uncover and solve difficult problems. Most adults have at some time read newspaper advice columns where readers anonymously submit problems and an “Agony Aunt” responds with advice so that others with similar problems benefit. Anonymity is an important and useful tool in many situations. Voting is usually done anonymously to allow freedom of expression and governments protect anonymous whistleblowers with legislation. Kids Help Phone encourages teens and children to phone in and share their problems anonymously because this helps teens and children to address problems they can’t in other ways. And police “Tips” phone services assure anonymity as a way of getting people to share others’ misdeeds.

College ACB closed down in October 2011 but anonymous online confession sites didn’t go away. Earlier that summer US college students began using a combination of Facebook pages and anonymous forms such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey to create school based Facebook Confession Pages.

How Do They Work?

Facebook Confession Pages are simply pages that allow students to anonymously submit their deepest secrets. The moderator of the page posts the confessions on the Facebook page. Students who ‘like’ the page can see each confession and can ‘like’ each confession and comment. The moderators of the page are often unknown to the students, as are the contributors. Here’s a typical example from a school in Hawaii.

The Facebook Confession Page model has caught on and spread. Many US and Canadian Universities have confession pages associated with them and it’s been slowly filtering to high schools and spreading around the world. The pages are free, easy to set up and tap into this deep-seated need teens and young adults have to share what they’re really thinking and feeling without fear of adult sanctions.

What Are The Problems?

While the original intent of Facebook Confession Pages was to offer a forum for students to share problems, concerns and secrets FB Confessions 3that isn’t all students are sharing. The online disinhibition effect, a loosening of social restrictions and inhibitions that would normally be present in social interactions, means that many students want to also use the confessions pages to share stories of alcohol and drug use or sexual behaviour. In some cases the pages lead to cyberbullying or even slander.

These were the problems that schools in Thunder Bay, Ontario were dealing with this week. Facebook Confessions Pages had spread first to Lakehead University and Confederation College in Thunder Bay, and from there passed down into the high schools. Soon, school officials were fretting over stories of student drunkenness and drug use and negative comments about teaching staff. In one case the comments crossed into slander and the teacher concerned complained to Facebook, who took the page down.

Experience in other jurisdictions suggests that taking pages down won’t solve the problem. Pages are easy to set up, and often when one is taken down another pops up right away moderated by a different student. Students jealously guard their adult free space and it’s often only after the fact that educators and parents discover that students are posting in a Confession Page.

FB Confessions 5Schools and school boards that move to shut down pages may find their requests falling on deaf ears. Freedom of expression is an important principle for all citizens, students included. Student stories of drunken escapades may be unpleasant and tarnish a school’s image in the community, but they aren’t illegal. Facebook only seems to be willing to take the pages down when there is clearly something illegal being posted. In some cases they’ve asked that offensive posts be removed while the page stays up.

Facebook is in a difficult position. It has recently been losing relevance with young users, as many of them see Facebook as their parent’s social network, not theirs. Confession Pages, with their ability to make users anonymous, are making Facebook relevant again with the 13-25 year old demographic. They’re not anxious to alienate those users without good reason.

What can educators and parents to do?

One of the values of social media use by teens is it gives us a window into their lives previously unavailable. If what we see is unpleasant an appropriate response is to deal with the problem, not to insist that the widow be closed. Teens expressing depression, issues with body image or alcohol and drug use should concern us all and rather than preventing them from posting about it we should be looking at the behaviour and trying to address it.

Students clearly have a need to post anonymously about their problems, concerns and fears. Schools should embrace the opportunity FB Confessions 4and set up their own “Confessions Pages”, moderated by students but with guidelines. This would allow students to express their concerns and problems safely while giving schools an element of control and providing an important source of information to educators about potential problems in the school.

Confession Pages and their associated problems also highlight the need for greater education about digital citizenship for students. Students sending their deepest, darkest secrets to a public forum to be posted and discussed is alarming. They need to better understand the risks of posting and the permanent and public nature of digital spaces. This starts at an early age with parents talking to children about social media and modelling good online behaviour themselves.

3 Responses to “High School Facebook Confession Pages: Problem or Symptom?”

  1. The Rethink Reader (@edrethinkreads) April 18, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Although I find the confession pages unwise and potentially dangerous, I think it comes down to a deeply human need to be known. Or maybe it comes from a sense of shame that happens some time in the process of coming of age – shame of what’s been done to a person, shame in what one has done to others, shame in the recklessness of rebellion. In a largely post-religious world, something like this can have a cleansing effect.

    • Fred Galang (@NomadCreatives) April 18, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      An amazing tool and an excellent opportunity all lay to waste yet again. Why do we mess a good thing up? Is this intrinsic in human nature? To push the envelope in a negative direction before we find something good out of anything? These rather disturbing trends in social networking (via confessions) is hardly new. Yet here we are, society looks at it as a “new problem”.

      In a nutshell I believe that this problem is correlated with how much parents and educators have a long way to go to address the questions of what it means to be a good citizen (not good online citizen but just being a decent human being). You hit it on the head when you said:

      “Students clearly have a need to post anonymously about their problems, concerns and fears. Schools should embrace the opportunity and set up their own “Confessions Pages”, moderated by students but with guidelines. This would allow students to express their concerns and problems safely while giving schools an element of control and providing an important source of information to educators about potential problems in the school.”

      To deny them the opportunity to reach out is to deny their human nature. We need to help them establish guidelines to a point where they can govern themselves. In turn, we (adults) need to adjust as well in a way that we can allow students to look after their affairs. Inherently as humans, we are capable of this.

      To this day, I’m blown by the lack of social media / digital communications based courses in schools (and courses for parents as well). I’m not talking about a unit / a guest speaker / themed topic. I’m talking full blown educational approaches from different angles. It seems to me that this issue has taken the way of sex ed in our classrooms (another topic for another day, I know).

      If schools and homes are responsible for entrenching acceptable social norms, what have we established as far as the social networking phenomenon is concerned? Have we even started at all? Based on these accounts that seem to come from all places, it’s safe to assume that we have not.

      • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) April 18, 2013 at 9:51 pm #

        Had a convo with a parent from Toronto today who approached her school and asked what they were doing about social media. The school said they talk to the kids about internet safety, that’s it. And no plans for anything else. The irony that they are not addressing any of this proactively, while schools are suffering students slandering teachers and shutting down facebook pages wasn’t lost on either of us.

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