Digital-FootprintIn my guest blog post last month called “Social Media: It’s About the Relationships!” I discussed some of the ways in which schools can use social media to build relationships with parents, extended family members, and the school community. In response, Amy Lovell asked on the SchneiderB Facebook Page how one can address parent and district concerns regarding the use of student pictures and/or videos on a school website or social media channel:

One of the main problems I run into is the fear the school has of publishing a picture of a kid or even including them in a video when their parents have signed the agreement that says they do NOT allow their child’s image or name to be published. (I’m in Texas. I don’t know if this varies from state to state or not.) Can you give me some insight on how you get around this barrier – especially in large schools?

The concerns that prompt these kind of agreements are not uncommon. Parents and school administrators are often concerned that predators will “find” a child on a school website and as a result schools are often reluctant to use social media to engage their school community. While I can’t speak to the legal implications of such signed agreements, I do see this as an opportunity to begin an important discussion about where the real risk to student safety lies and the importance of teaching about digital citizenship to students, administrators, and parents.

At the FETC 2012 Conference in January, I attended a terrific session on “Parenting 2.0” by @RitaOates. In her presentation she referenced the final report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force from Harvard. Among the major risk findings of the task force were:

  • Public perception of predators and victims is not accurate (p. 16)
  • Minors are not equally at risk online. Those who are most at risk from predators often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. (p. 5)
  • Bullying and harassment are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline. (p. 4)

Parents and administrators should be far, far more concerned about student behavior online than a photo on a school website! Kids upload inappropriate photos, videos, and other content every day and parents have no idea what their children are doing. I suspect that many parents who sign agreements like those referenced above are oblivious to the far greater risks posed by student behavior. And it is not just cyberbullying. Sexting, the oversharing of personal information and inappropriate use of social media are all too common.

The ubiquity of cell phones with cameras has made it nearly impossible for kids to avoid having their picture posted online, whether or not a school posts pictures on a formal media channel. The reality is, even if students are not posting pictures and videos of themselves online, their friends are. So are parents who videotape school events and post these pictures and videos on youtube, flickr, etc. Schools can’t regulate that. I have a personal facebook page and 95% of the pictures of me were posted by other people. Even if I didn’t have a Facebook page, people would still have posted those pictures online.

Students today need to understand the consequences of posting inappropriate content online (and in some cases, they need to be taught exactly what constitutes inappropriate content.) They also need to learn to post APPROPRIATE content online that will help them build a positive digital footprint. A majority of college admissions officers and employers today will google applicant names to see what turns up. They aren’t just looking for negative content – they are looking for positive content that shows individual accomplishments and examples of student work. Regardless of whether schools choose to publish student names with their photos (and thus enhancing a student’s digital footprint), they should be modeling for students what kind of content should be posted online.

At the very least, I hope that schools who are reluctant to use social media for the reasons outlined above will re-evaluate the relative risk posed by student photos on a school Facebook page. After all, what’s the greater risk: a school website photo highlighting a child’s accomplishments or an inappropriate photo of that child tagged with their name that appears at the top of a google search?

Read more: 13 Tips to Maximize Your Social Media Footprint