Tag Archives: Digital Citizenship

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.

Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work

8 Feb

Spend time with children and you learn that lists of rules don’t work well. Kids are too smart and love to find loopholes. No matter how long you spend crafting a list that covers all scenarios a 5-year-old will bite someone and point out that you didn’t say he couldn’t.

A better approach is positive general principles. Tell students what you want them to do. My favorite model is the four Tribes agreements that are displayed prominently in my class and discussed and practiced every day:

  1. Attentive Listening– Pay close attention to what others are saying. Check for understanding
  2. Appreciation Only– Treat each other kindly, don’t use put-downs.
  3. Right to Pass– Choose when and how much you participate. It’s acceptable to simply observe.
  4. Mutual Respect– Affirm the value and uniqueness of everyone.

These agreements cover most situations, describe behavior in positive terms and support the development of critical thinking skills.

This approach works better than long lists of rules, and so I’m confused by the common approach to encouraging good Digital Citizenship. Further, the concept of separate rules for digital behavior is quite flawed.

Digital Citizenship is often promoted by listing the many things students cannot or should not do. Schools require students to sign ‘Acceptable User Agreements’ with long lists of rules such as:

Students may not

  • Use illegal downloads
  • Post name, address, telephone number, etc. without permission
  • Contact strangers on the Internet
  • By-pass digital security systems
  • Access unapproved websites
  • Post inaccurate or harmful information
  • Use digital technologies in an unhealthy manner (e.g. game addiction, loud music, etc.,)
  • And so on…

Such lists are too narrow, quickly become outdated and don’t allow students to think critically.

More importantly the whole concept of digital citizenship is backwards. Students who behave inappropriately in digital spaces misinterpret the digital space as private, when it is, of course, public. This misunderstanding leads students to believe that the regular rules of public behavior don’t apply in digital space, and so they behave in ways online that they never would in public. The fundamental error is in thinking that digital spaces are different, with different rules from the real world. They aren’t.

Lists of ‘rules’ for online behavior reinforce the misconception that online and real life is different.  We must help students understand that social media, texting, etc. are public spaces and the same rules that apply in other public spaces also apply there.

The Brampton 9 students wouldn’t insult their teachers over the PA system at school. Students wouldn’t engage in many of the negative online behaviors that they do if they understood that they are sharing with the whole world, not just their friends. They don’t need a new set of rules, just to apply the rules they already know to their digital behavior.

We need to stop teaching Digital Citizenship with long lists of rules and instead reinforce basic Citizenship. Provide students with a set of positively framed principles to apply to all situations, digital and analog. Students don’t need more rules; they just need to apply the ones they’ve already got. The same ones they learned in kindergarten.

Digital Citizenship, Free Speech and “The Brampton 9”

24 Nov


On Wednesday Ontario education was dragged in the shifting debate over students, privacy, free speech and the internet.

Nine students in Brampton, Ontario were told to stay home after The Dufferin-Peel District Catholic School Board found out they’d “used Twitter to make inappropriate comments about teachers” the previous weekend.

This is just the latest incident in a growing trend, as educators try to navigate the minefield that students and social media has become.

Some examples:

There are lots of new issues to consider. Here are three key ones:

1) Digital Citizenship: What responsibility do schools have to educate and prepare students for the “digital future” and how best do we do that?

Many students, used to texting, are missing the shift required when using social media. It’s easy to think that messages on twitter are part of a private conversation, when they aren’t. We need to help students understand that online communication is public and that means a different set of standards and expectations from private.

The consequences of not understanding this are significantly more than a few days suspension. People are increasingly judged personally and professionally by their digital footprint, losing jobs due to “inappropriate use of social media“, prevented from getting jobs because of past ‘digital mistakes’, or losing relationships. We need to help students understand this.

2) Free Speech: Can schools really restrict student’s free expression outside school? Should they?

In the Brampton case the comments and threats were seen as cyberbullying and so fit under the school’s responsibility to prevent such behaviour. But does it stop there? What about when a student makes statements that oppose the school or are controversial? What if students at a Catholic school tweet in support of abortion or anti-religious views? What then? What if a student’s online behaviour reflects badly on the school, but doesn’t involve the school in any way? If a student appropriately expresses support for an unpopular position does the school need to respond?

3) Deeper Causes: What does this all mean in the bigger picture?

Dana Boyd has pointed out that none of this behaviour is new. Students have “trashed” teachers and fantasized about blowing up the school for generations. The difference is that their conversations are now happening in social media, where it is recorded and displayed.

We have a window into students’ thoughts, attitudes and emotions about teachers and schools. What do we do with that? Do we ‘shoot the messenger’ and try to suppress those views? Or do we take advantage of it and ask the harder questions?

Why were these students so angry with/about their teachers? What does that mean? Will we listen when students have things to say that we don’t agree with or want to ask difficult questions? Will we honor their right to express their views while recognizing that they aren’t adults and will make many mistakes?

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.