George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social Media

Protecting Student Privacy on Social Media

A primer for ensuring that students’ personal information remains confidential on social media.

Illustration of an eyeball looking out from a computer screen
Illustration of an eyeball looking out from a computer screen

Social media is an increasingly important part of students’ lives. According to a recent study by Common Sense Media, the average teen spends over an hour a day using social media, and only 3 percent of the time tweens and teens spend online is focused on creation vs. consumption. To be true digital citizens, our students need teachers who model pro-social, creative, and responsible social media use.

So why is only one in 10 teachers using social media professionally? Working in a school environment and dealing with issues ranging from Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) compliance to headline-making incidents can be a scary and confusing prospect. It’s no wonder many teachers avoid these questions entirely. In fact, 81 percent of teachers surveyed in the study above expressed concerns about the possible pitfalls that arise from mixing professional work with social media.

But there’s a huge upside: Many teachers have used social media to share best practices, provide an authentic audience for student work, cultivate digital citizenship among their students, and build more connected school communities. Any risks to student privacy can be managed with informed, intentional use.

So, if you’re looking to take the plunge—or already have—review this non-exhaustive list of dos and don’ts for protecting privacy and setting a responsible example of safe sharing in your classroom.

Establish Transparent, FERPA-Compliant Policies

Do locate and review your school or district’s social media guidelines. Everything you might do hinges on the existing policies—including an acceptable-use policy. So check those first. 

Do use parental consent/opt-out forms. If you’re planning on sharing activities in your classroom, acquire parental consent. You can also advocate to have your school use detailed opt-out forms for more explicit parental control. 

Don’t start using social media in your classroom without guidelines or consent forms. Instead, contact the people who can help set them up, and get them in place.

Best Practices for Privacy

Do consider creating a separate account for professional use. It will save you a lot of headache later.

Do review the privacy settings on any personal social media accounts. For instance, set your personal Twitter account to “Protected” so only those who follow you can access your tweets. Dive into Facebook’s privacy controls. Note, however, that Facebook’s privacy settings are really about visibility of your information to other users. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms can still see everything, and, in some cases, third-party apps you connect to through social media get special access as well.

Do use photo-editing tools on your phone or tablet. These can help you quickly crop or obscure sensitive parts of an image before posting. 

Do explain to students what they’ll be doing. Let them know the what, when, and how they’ll be using social media, and facilitate a discussion about the why—both the benefits and the risks. Get students’ feedback, and encourage them to talk to you privately if they have more sensitive concerns about their pictures or personal information making it out into the world. It goes without saying, but respect each student’s wishes.

Do walk around your classroom and look for any visible student or class information. If you’re a teacher, you probably have a lot of stuff on the walls and whiteboards of your room, which could include sensitive information, from logins and passwords to student names, class codes for apps, and grades. Take an inventory of everything in your room and either remove these postings or keep them out of any media you record.

Do take an inventory of your digital files and folders. How are you organizing students’ digital records on your computer and/or any shared computers you have? Make sure information is only accessible to the appropriate parties. 

Protect Students’ Personally Identifiable Information and Confidentiality

Before we get into the dos and don’ts of students’ personally identifiable info, there are three important questions to ask yourself before you post:

  1. Is there anything personally identifiable in this post?
  2. Do I have explicit permission to post it?
  3. Is what I’m posting furthering students’ learning?

Those questions will get you a long way.

Don’t share students’ faces or names without explicit, parental consent. Unless you’ve made some arrangement with parents and students, always make sure that students’ faces and names are obscured. Watch out for reflections.

Do be mindful of how your posts commercialize your classroom. Social media can be a great way to offer feedback to developers of educational products, but consider how posts about products that include your students can make them nonconsensual spokespeople.

Do look out for name tags and jerseys. It’s easy to overlook these disclosures of students’ names.

Don’t make any grades, assessments, or any other part of a student’s educational record public. This is a core part of FERPA and casts a wide net. If in doubt about something that might count, don’t share. Pay particular attention to how you reply to publicly posted student work.

Don’t forget that handwriting is personally identifiable information. A lot of what FERPA considers personally identifiable is pretty commonsense (names, addresses, student ID numbers), but you should know that FERPA protects biometric data as well, including handwriting.

Do closely review any picture you share before posting. Avoid instantly sharing any picture or video you take. Take some time to look closely at what you’ve recorded, ideally on a bigger screen than a phone or, at least, by zooming in and looking closely at everything that’s visible. You’ll be surprised at what you catch (for example, student names on worksheets, classroom passwords on Post-its, and profile information on a computer monitor).

Don’t use students’ names when naming files. It’s not just what’s inside the picture or artifact you share but how that file is titled or contextualized that could disclose students’ information (for example, “JasminePhillips_01.jpg”).

Do turn off location services for your phone when taking pictures. Many phone or tablet cameras, including those on iPhones and iPads, have a setting that can attach location data to pictures you take. On iOS devices, you can go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services to modify these settings for your camera as well as other apps. This provides another step of anonymity when you’re sharing media from your classroom.

Not Quite Ready to Go Public?

Do use a classroom-only tool such as a learning management system to share safely, and build your classroom’s digital citizenship skills. You and your students can practice sharing work, participating in conversations, and connecting with an audience using an LMS that allows for media-rich, private sharing and commenting between students and teachers.

Check out the Common Sense Education Protect Students’ Data and Privacy page for curated, classroom-ready resources for using tech critically and responsibly.

This article was written by Tanner Higgin from Common Sense Education in collaboration with Edutopia.

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