The Ethics of Teacher-Student Facebook Friending

Sometimes what appears harmless and benign at first glance starts looking inappropriate and unethical after we learn more about it. Social networking media has been teaching this lesson with alacrity over the last year, and we now have another example that will be making some friends of mine re-evaluate their Facebook friend list…I hope.

The New York Post has reported that least three educators from New York City  public high schools have been fired in the past six months for having inappropriate exchanges with students on Facebook, including one of which culminated in a sexual relationship. One of the teachers “friended” about a half-dozen female students and wrote  comments like, “This is sexy,” under some of their Facebook photos. He also posted a tasteless tagline that read, “I’m not a gynecologist, but I’ll take a look inside,” according to the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City school district. Another teacher lost her job for posting a photo of her kissing an 18-year-old male former student on the lips. A subsequent investigation revealed that the teacher had engaged in sex with the student ten times in her apartment. , and records revealed 2,700 phone contacts between the pair over a six-month period.
Yet another teacher used Facebook to send a young girl the sentiment that her “boyfriend [did not] deserve a beautiful girl like you,” investigators found.

Several of my teacher friends have their rolls of Facebook friends filled with students and former students of the opposite sex. They find Facebook useful for posting announcements, and believe it fosters trust with their students. Upon reflection, however, I think it is a bad idea, and crosses some lines that need to remain uncrossed. Facebook suggests social interaction, and teachers’ interaction with students should be restricted to the classroom. Having teachers and students sharing their Facebook pages lets both into each others’ private world, and can stimulate inappropriate interaction, the anticipation of it, or the appearance of it. I can understand how teachers and students letting each other on their Facebook pages seemed harmless at first, but now there is enough evidence to know that it is too close to “hanging out” together. That makes it irresponsible, and potential conflicts of interest, though the Post story doesn’t discuss that. For example. are the teacher’s “friends” getting better grades or other considerations?


After reading the Post story, the Facebook friend list of one of my pre-Facebook friends of long standing—a high school teacher and married man about my age, who has always had a penchant for aggressive flirtation—doesn’t look so innocent. I once commented that the number of lovely young women on his page was remarkable for such an old goat (many of the photos were provocative, I thought), and he responded, “Oh, those are just my students and their friends.”

Oh. Oh? Oh!

The Post story reports that school districts in several states, such as  Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Ohio, have ordered or urged teachers not to “friend” students on social-networking sites, and quotes Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, as agreeing with the policy. “It may be advisable to put it into policy, just because you have too many teachers who aren’t going to think this out,” she says. “I think it’s safer for teachers and students to be interacting on the educational plane — not a friendship plane. Socializing on Facebook can cross over into areas that are potentially dangerous.”

I think I agree with her.

Now I’m trying to work up the courage to tell my friend that he needs to “de-friend” about 300 young women.

13 thoughts on “The Ethics of Teacher-Student Facebook Friending

  1. For college faculty, the students want us to ‘hang out’ with them. It seems strange to me, but many of them view a professional detachment as being unfriendly and offensive even. On many recent faculty evaluations, students have written complaints that the faculty member doesn’t socialize with the students and only meets with them in the classroom or their office. The students want their faculty to be their friends, just like their parents are their friends. I am guessing they have never had an authority figure in their lives before and they don’t want one now. I am assuming the same is true for their high school teachers.

    In colleges, faculty are being pressured by administrators and accreditation bodies to use facebook to keep in touch with students and former students. This is going to lead to abuses, but as long as administrators keep requesting it and as long as faculty are ranked by how popular they are with students, it will not stop.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Teacher-Student Facebook Friending | Γονείς σε Δράση

  3. I was writing a long winded response but it really comes down to this: Technology can be used for good or bad, and without proper training, rules and guidelines, it typically ends up being bad.

    Using facebook between teachers and students can be okay, but the teachers need training on how to properly use this tool of technology.

    If the teacher wasn’t attempting to use the technology to advance their curriculum for all students and accepted the ad-hoc friend request, then that is an inappropriate connection.

  4. As a school librarian and parent, I agree that social networking with students, however innocent, is a really bad idea. The term “friend,” alone, should rule out the notion that this might be a good idea. I can be friendly to students (and strive to be), but I am not their friend. Friends are people I can share life experiences with, and a teenager’s life experiences do not match mine. If we cannot connect on a mental level and should not (must not) connect on a physical one, that pretty much precludes friendship.
    I like our students, respect them, am inspired by their general enthusiasm for life, and, when I am waxing nostalgic, can vicariously relive my youth watching them interact with each other. That’s a real privilege and ought to, to my way of thinking, be enough for anyone.
    Or, to put it another way, don’t conduct yourself in a questionable manner and others will be less likely to raise questions about you.

  5. I know plenty of people who have more than one profile on FB. They keep the work and personal separate. If that were the case, and say, I was Mrs. Becky Teacher, as opposed to my personal page, would that be as dangerous?

    I have always had older friends than I, perhaps because I’ve always been old. I’m connected to a number of former teachers and professors, but I’m also old enough that this stuff didn’t exist when I was still young enough for it to even look iffy. And heck, I’m a theatrical person, so certain lines of iffiness don’t exist even in my ‘professional’ world.

  6. As a 4th grade teacher, this year I had about a dozen ‘friend requests’ from former students who had gone on to middle school. I sent an email explaining that I could not be facebook friends with them but I would love to hear what they were up to and how they were doing if they wanted to email me at my public school email. This removes any ‘iffyness’ and keeps everything out in the open. A couple students have actually emailed (which is also great writing practice for them) but most probably weren’t looking for anything except the novelty of being ‘friends’ with a teacher.
    My personal view is that they are too young to be on facebook, when most have not had any education in the ‘rules’ and etiquette (and potential consequences) of social networking. So for me it is fairly black and white, but I know my friend who is a college professor and a musician has a much harder time knowing how to deal with this (I am sending this post to him!)

  7. I’m not sure that Facebook the actual problem here; instead, Facebook has simply made it easier for others to witness the kind of inappropriate relationships that have long existed in education. In none of the instances above do I see clear evidence that it was Facebook that caused the teacher to cross a boundary. If a teacher is so lacking in basic professionalism and ethics that he thinks it’s okay to make gynecologist jokes with an underage student, the problem is a whole lot bigger than friending students on Facebook.

    My own experience is this: I am a college professor, and I do have a number of my students as friends on Facebook. My policy is to accept any student’s friend request, but I do not actively send out requests to my students. I am well aware that the power imbalance could make a teacher’s friend request feel pressuring, and I want to respect their privacy online, especially if they post things that they would not want a teacher to see.

    As for me, the simple knowledge that my students, colleagues, and other professional contacts are potentially watching my Facebook interactions keeps me very careful about what I say online and what pictures or other information I post. It may not be a perfect system, but I’m pretty sensitive to teacher-student boundaries, and so far it seems to be working for me.

    • This is the logic New York takes regarding judges using social media with lawyers: it won’t say it is per se unethical, (like, for example, Florida does), but that it depends, and it depends on the integrity and good judgment of the judge. The question is whether a general ban is necessary to stop those who are irresponsible and don’t use good judgment.

      • It may be way too early to have good statistics on this, but I would be interested in knowing whether ethics breaches tend to be fewer in situations where social media contact is banned between teachers and students. My guess is that social media does make it easier to track or prove a problematic situation, but that if the contact doesn’t happen on Facebook, it’s just as likely to happen via e-mail, text message, etc.

        One concern that I do have about my own Facebook contact with students is that I don’t want to create an appearance of favoritism with some students that might cause others to feel left out. My solution so far has been to really limit my contacts with all former students, and to make a point to comment or post on their walls as pertains to their classes, artwork, or other school-related things, rather than personal subjects. There is still plenty of room for fun within those boundaries — I’ll give a student a hard time if I notice he’s updated his status during my class, or tease a group of students about how much caffeine it took for them to pull the last all-nighter.

        Once a student graduates, I feel pretty comfortable acting like a regular friend, both in person and online. They seem to appreciate that, and I know that some of my current seniors are really looking forward to being able to have more of an equal relationship once they graduate.

  8. If a student has graduated, and asks, I will usually friend them. For the most part, older former students contact me, say about 15 years after graduation. I am more than happy to friend these.

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