Teenagers, Legal Risks and Social Networking Sites

On Friday, I attended the launch of a final report from the Learning with New Media research group who are from Monash University’s Faculty of Education. Their report is the title of this post, and it includes some important recommendations that should be heeded in school communities today. I have replicated their key findings and recommendations below, and hope the authors feel that this is appropriate dissemination of their work. I am particularly pleased that they have identified the need for schools to “equip(ping) children and young people with the skills required to be effective digital citizens, and not focus(sed) on rare or hypothetical fears.” For too long, many of us have been trying to do just this using new media tools like Ning networks in our curriculum, and now we have some solid research based recommendations supporting their use.

I have not yet finished reading the report in its entirety, but intend to do so. I encourage you to download it from the following link;

Teenagers, Legal Risks and Social Networking Sites

The authors (Melissa de Zwart, David Lindsay, Michael Henderson and Michael Phillips) have also produced an educational resource for teachers and parents that can also be downloaded. Access it at the following link;

Will u friend me? Legal Risks and Social Networking Sites

What follows are the key findings and recommendations from research conducted, using data collected from seventeen Victorian Secondary Schools from State, Catholic and Independent systems in both rural and metropolitan locations.

Key findings:

The findings confirm that SNS usage has become integrated into the everyday social lives of most Victorian middle school students. The findings also indicate that there is a general awareness of risks in using SNS by middle school students, although concerns about risks differ markedly between parents and teachers, on the one hand, and students, on the other. However, there is very little clear understanding by students, parents and teachers alike, of the precise nature of the legal risks that may arise from everyday SNS use.
1.    The overwhelming majority (94.9%) of middle school students (years 7 to 10) have used SNS.

2.    Facebook is the most popular SNS, with 93.4% of students using it, followed by MySpace, with 26.6% of surveyed students using it. Many students use more than one SNS.
3.    The majority of surveyed students update information on their SNS at least every day, and over a quarter update their SNS profile several times a day.
4.    The surveyed students use SNS primarily to maintain current social networks, while making new friends and flirting were relatively low in students’ reported practices.
5.    The majority of parents (80.4%) indicated that they had seen their child’s SNS profile at least once.
6.    The most common content reported as posted to SNS by surveyed students is photographs of themselves (60.9%), closely followed by photographs of their friends (52.6%). Nevertheless, posting of third party content, including music, video and photos of celebrities, is still significant. The proportion of students posting videos to SNS increases with age.
7.    A significant proportion of students (45.6%) reported that their photos had been posted on their friends’ SNS. The majority of students were not concerned with this practice.
8.    The most highly valued feature of SNS was the ability to stay in touch with friends and family. SNS are also perceived to be less expensive than other forms of communication.
9.    Surveyed students felt that SNS were safer than did their teachers and parents. Thus, while 48.8% of students recognised that there was some element of risk in using SNS, more than one quarter (28.3%) thought that SNS were safe. Moreover, 19.6% of students were ambivalent about risk, essentially reporting that the degree of risk was irrelevant to them as it is “just what everyone does”.
10.    Students from years 7 to 10 are increasingly more selective in who can see their profile. The survey results suggest that year 7 students not only have more visible profiles, but are more likely to perceive SNS as safe or only a little bit risky.
11.    A majority of surveyed students (72.4%) indicated that they had had unwanted or unpleasant contact by strangers via their social networking profile.
12.    A minority of students (13.8%) were concerned about security risks, such as identity theft. A small group of student respondents (3.2%) identified concerns relating to privacy or unwelcome disclosure of data.
13.    Parents and teachers were particularly concerned with issues of cyber-bullying, and grooming or stalking, with a lesser number expressing concerns about identity theft and disclosure.
14.    Despite the acknowledged risks of students using SNS, there is surprisingly little ongoing conversation about SNS use between parents and their children, on the one hand, or teachers and their students, on the other. In this respect, almost half of the surveyed students (46.1%) reported that they did not talk with their parents about SNS use, while almost three quarters of the students (74.6%) reported that they did not talk with their teachers about SNS use.
15.    Surveyed students reported an awareness of a variety of strategies for avoiding risks or problems associated with SNS use, including ignoring ‘friendship’ requests from strangers, blocking or deleting unpleasant or unwanted friends, setting their profile to ‘private’, not disclosing personal details, frequently changing their password, threatening people who wished to be added to the student’s SNS and self-censorship. Only 1% of respondents reported asking for guidance or help from adults as a viable strategy.
16.    The majority of teachers have not used SNS in an educational context. However, a significant minority (36.1%) of the teachers who were asked this question indicated that they had used SNS for educational purposes, including communicating with their students about schoolwork.
17.    The majority of teachers who were surveyed on the issue indicated that they were generally aware of risks, including legal risks, of teachers using SNS. However it is also clear that teachers had a variety of understandings about the specific nature of this risk.

…the key recommendations arising from this project are as follows:
1.    In order to enhance the benefits of SNS use, and minimise the disadvantages, it is important for children and young people to be equipped with the necessary information to empower them to effectively manage risks associated with the everyday use of SNS. The best way to do this is through specifically tailored educational activities. As children and young people must be primarily responsible for managing their own risks, it is essential that educational activities focus on providing clear and accurate information about all risks associated with SNS use, including legal risks. These educational activities should be aimed primarily at equipping children and young people with the skills required to be effective digital citizens, and not focussed on rare or hypothetical fears.

2.    Education about the full range of legal risks potentially encountered by the use of SNS should be part of a fully integrated cybersafety school curricula. This means that attention that is properly given to more dramatic issues, such as cyber-bullying and ‘sexting’, should be balanced with attention to other potential areas of legal liability. This strategy should also assist in promoting awareness of, and debates about, the Australian legal system as it applies to online activities. While acknowledging the crowded nature of school curricula, the importance of SNS in the lives of students, and the potential significance of social media for future digital citizenship, suggests that room should be found for these issues to be directly addressed.
3.    The best way to approach the teaching of legal literacy in the digital environment, is by the use of practical examples drawn from real life case studies. With this objective in view, one of the outcomes of this project is the Education Resource Book, which includes a series of classroom exercises aimed at promoting understanding and discussion of specific legal issues. The researchers for this project encourage the production and use of this and similar resource material for the use of teachers of middle school students.
4.    The reported prevalence of posting of photographs of students to SNS, suggests that the legal and ethical issues involved with the posting of photographs – which include privacy, confidentiality, defamation and copyright – merit specific attention in any cybersafety curriculum. The significance of understanding these issues is emphasised by the incidents involving a Melbourne teenager posting naked photos of AFL footballers to her Facebook site.
5.    The potential disparities in the approaches to, and understandings of, legal risks associated with SNS use between parents, teachers and students, as well as the reported paucity of communication on SNS use between students and parents and teachers, suggests that there is some need for education and training of teachers and parents, as well as students. Much can be gained by the community from greater informed discussion of the implications of SNS use, including legal implications, among parents, teachers and students.
6.    Consideration should be given by Commonwealth, State and Territory authorities to encourage and guide SNS service providers operating in Australia to enter into a self- regulatory agreement similar to the Safer Social Networking Principles for the EU. This would provide baseline commitments against which practices of SNS service providers in their dealings with young people could be periodically assessed.
7.    Given the concerns expressed by teachers interviewed for this project, there appears to be an identified need for further guidance to be provided to teachers about the use of SNS, especially in the pedagogical context. In particular, there is a pressing need for research and policy work to be undertaken in determining the extent of the ‘duty of care’ owed by teachers in any interactions with students via SNS. In this respect, it is important that the salient differences between interactions via SNS, and interactions offline, including the different legal implications, are fully taken into account.
8.    There is a need to promote holistic policy responses to the full range of risks associated with the use of SNS by young people. Any responses should be coordinated so as to minimize the risk of fragmented, inconsistent, and potentially contradictory, policy initiatives at the Commonwealth, State and Territory levels. If, following the forthcoming report by the Commonwealth Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, it is decided to establish an Online Ombudsman, the Ombudsman’s portfolio should extend to promoting education about the full range of legal risks associated with the use of SNS. In doing so, the Ombudsman should coordinate with Commonwealth, State and Territory Privacy Commissioners.
As the discussion of the project above indicates, this was a preliminary study, which, as well as highlighting the issues analysed above, also indicated the need for further work to be done in this area. There is a need for further research directed at understanding young people’s use of SNS and how they can better be empowered to be confident and safer digital citizens. There is also a significant need to further work to be done to assist teachers to be better equipped to understand their rights and responsibilities in the digital communication environment.

Research findings like these will support our use of new technologies in classrooms. What is evident from their recommendations is that further teacher professional development is required to ensure that we have teachers with the skill set to produce the ‘effective digital citizens’ we need in society today. The authors acknowledged on Friday that further research into how schools effectively do this is required. Let’s hope this happens sooner rather than later.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Teenagers, Legal Risks and Social Networking Sites

  1. Thanks for this important post, Jenny. A brief article appeared in the Sunday Age (20/3), but it was largely cautionary. It seems we have a lot to do.

  2. Therese Kenny

    Thanks Jenny,

    The Educational Resource book looks wonderful. Some great little case studies/examples, which ‘make it real’ & easy for our teenagers to relate to.

    Many thanks for sharing your summary of the report’s key findings & recommendations.

    Cheers,
    Therese Kenny
    TL @ Loreto Normanhurst, Sydney

  3. Thankyou for post, Jenny. Our students have made a mass shift into SNS, and yet we are not taking an active interest in school on the whole. I don’t think we can ignore this any longer.

  4. I think that you have nailed it, Tania. “I don’t think we can ignore this any longer.” I know that the early adopters were seen as being on the edge of danger. When you look at the totality of the comments above, it can’t be ignored. Even if we focus on the first point that 95% of middle school students use it, the big question has to be “Who is providing the guidance for safe and ethical use?”

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