Stephanie Borg Psaila   21 Aug 2011   Internet Governance

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If you want to raise awareness among parents on the effects of social networks on their children, try passing a law like Missouri’s Senate Bill 45.

The new law is making it illegal for teachers to have private contact with students on any online site, including social networks. This makes the law unique, and is making waves nationally in the USA.

The pioneering clause in the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act is s. 162.069: Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a non-work-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.

The law also requires school districts to develop written policies – by the end of the year – on appropriate oral and non-verbal personal communication, including the appropriate use of electronic media.

Senator Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the Bill, explains in an interview: ‘There is only one limited thing that we are prohibiting and that is private, hidden communication between an educator and student’. In another interview, she explains that teachers can still befriend students on Facebook or be in other Internet contact as long as the sites are open to administrators, parents, or others.

Perhaps as expected, the law has raised controversy over the effects on social networking sites on children and young people, what is appropriate and what’s not, enforcement of laws which regulate private communications, and the monitoring of online conduct (and ‘friends’). Online debate is also questioning whether the law infringes the US First Amendment, and whether it has the potential to become a new trend nationwide and worldwide.

Naturally, not all teachers were amused with this development. Missouri teacher Randy Turner is vociferous about it: ‘The signing of Senate Bill 54 continues the degrading of our profession and the only effect it will have is on teachers who have always followed the law and who would never dream of violating the sacred trust we have to teach children. We will eliminate students and former students from our Facebook lists.’

But how do you strike a balance between the positive effects of social media on education, including the trust children have in social media as a communication bridge with their educators, and the need to protect their well-being from predators? The same law which vies for children’s protection is also pulling down the same bridge which children could openly cross to talk to their educators.

Yet, it looks like public opinion might be largely in favour of what the law is trying to achieve. One main reason is that the law does not outlaw online communication. Teachers can still communicate with students, as long as the online contact is public. They can set up pages that are open to the public, with students being able to ‘like’ their page.

Whether or not the new law goes a step too far, the requirement for schools to draw up policies for online conduct, including the appropriate use of electronic media, is definitely a good step. It’s meant to address conduct on virtual spaces that have become a natural extension of our offline lives. And when it concerns the safety and well-being of children, it’s even more welcome.

Comments

  • Profile picture for user Stephanie Borg Psaila
    Stephanie Borg…, 08/13/2020 - 11:28

    Thanks for the comment. With law, there are always two sides of the coin. I agree with you about a code of ethics and standards. The challenge is the monitoring part. Let's say teacher-student online communication is allowed: how do you monitor whether the teacher is in line with the code of ethics? Who gets to monitor what's being said? One way of threading this path safely might be that of requiring the child to ask for the parents' consent before he/she is allowed to talk to the teacher. In any case, many social media networks do require the parents' consent before allowing an under-aged child to sign up for an account, so this would be merely extending the concept. I think we might also keep in mind that in general, teachers are trustworthy, responsible people who have the children's well-being at heart. It's a pity that the occasional case can cause damage to teachers' reputation in general.
  • Jonathan (not verified), 08/13/2020 - 11:28

    The law needs to be careful as this can hold back progress - there are always two sides and the law must err on the side of the youth in all cases. Having said that it seems ludicrous that there is a huge amount of interaction with teachers during the daytime on a one to one or classroom basis - but this activity is not allowed outside the working hours; on a professional basis. What about the piano teacher that takes on private work - is this not similar? What is really needed is a code of ethics and standards that allows contact in a professional manner. The contact needs to be monitored and professional. In this way both student and teacher can benefit.

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