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Opening Arguments

Teachers' pets

Interesting ethical dilemma in the social media age:


Should students and teachers ever be friends on Facebook? School districts across the country, including the nation's largest, are weighing that question as they seek to balance the risks of inappropriate contact with the academic benefits of social networking.

At least 40 school districts nationwide have approved social media policies. Schools in New York City and Florida have disciplined teachers for Facebook activity, and Missouri legislators recently acquiesced to teachers' objections to a strict statewide policy.

In the New York cases, one teacher friended several female students and wrote comments including "this is sexy" under their photos, investigators said. A substitute teacher sent a message to a student saying that her boyfriend did not "deserve a beautiful girl like you."

Such behavior clearly oversteps boundaries, but some teachers say social media -- in particular Facebook -- can be a vital educational resource if used appropriately, especially because it's a primary means of communication for today's youngsters.

In a way, this is an old dilemma merely given more urgency by technological changes. There have always been teachers who think it's important to stand apart from students and those who think it's important to be friendly with them. There's always been a line and a debate over where it is and how exactly one crosses it.

But the new "friendship problem" is a little trickier than the earlier versions, I think, because of the nature of online relationships. Even before the social media came along, people were getting a lot looser with each other online than they would in real-life fact-to-face meetings. There's something about the Internet that encourages almost instant intimacy. A lot of marriages have broken up because one of the partners met somebody new online or reconnected with someone from the past.

The social media are just speeding all this up. Wonder how much they're involved in the explosion of inappropriate teacher-student relationships so much in the news?