I had an interesting week this week. One where my parenting world collided with my work in the digital space. My daughter came back from school in a bit of a state as she and nine of her class had been called to see the deputy headmistress about their behaviour on Facebook.
As she told me, the deputy head had a file full of print outs of the girls’ walls and chats, and was reprimanding them for talking to boys and swearing. I was concerned and parentally confused, whilst accepting that Jess should not be swearing really at 12, she’s fine talking to boys. What most worried me was that Jess is on Facebook behind massive privacy settings, all of her friends are people she knows in real life – I check this – and this is the forum she uses to chat to her friends (for hours), like I did when I was 12, running up massive phone bills for my parents.
Jess was actually more embarrassed than anything, and kept wincing and groaning “oh no” as she thought of more and more things the school might have seen that she had written, and spent the evening cleaning up her wall, sanitising and deleting everything she deemed dodgy were a teacher looking.
I had absolutely no idea how the school had accessed the conversation and walls of these girls, as they too are behind privacy blocks and no one can see what they are saying on walls except the respective friends, and the chats are restricted to only those directly involved in the conversation.
In my view, this is a safe and free environment for them to share their lives and grow close friendships that in some cases will last for life, using a variety of media. And in this safe place, they are free to more or less do as they please: and yes, I know they swear, it’s not like I am so naive that I would think they don’t, and I know they talk to boys there, for one, Jess’s cousin in Australia is a boy. However, so long as they are not bullying anyone, something I would take very seriously, and admittedly if they were slagging off the school that’s probably not on, although in a private environment, that is not viewed easily by anyone – it is unreasonable to expect them to be 100% positive about their place of education :) – but the issue the school had was not with bullying or undermining the school.
Points to note: these conversations all took place outside of school hours on home computers, never at school that has a block on Facebook – and they have no practical need to try to beat that block, as the people they want to chat with on FB are all there at school with them. The swearing was ‘normal’ swearing, not any of those really *bad* words :)
I had a bit of a brainstorm on twitter about it, was I right to be concerned? There was a pretty resounding cry of ‘yes’ from the twitterverse.
I wrote to the class teacher, explaining that I was not being a precious Mum, but that I felt there was a violation of privacy here, and a blurring of the school/parenting role. I asked for a full explanation of how the information was received by the school (the 6th formers had filled Jess and her friends’ heads with tales of spying through the school network and what have you). I felt a bit embarrassed, to be honest, but it just felt wrong not to do anything. I also knew that Jess, at 12, actually should not be on Facebook anyway, according to the terms – but they all are… (I know that’s not an excuse, but it meant I was on very shaky ground).
The next night, the deputy head called me – by which time I had convinced myself that there had been a huge violation of privacy, that the school could be in real trouble and would have to revise their policy on social networking and young people etc etc. Here’s where I learned my lesson.
It turned out that what had happened was that one of the parents of the other girls involved had seen her daughters wall, and chat, had then explored all of the other girls’ walls and records of chats and had set about printing everything that concerned them. This parent created the file of print outs and took them to the school, asking that they do something about this. The deputy head said that she had a dilemma, really, she could not do nothing, nor could she really get overly involved. She decided that the best course of action was to call the girls in, to reprimand them for the behaviour that had concerned the other parent, mainly to teach them that 1. they can get caught doing anything online and 2. there is no such thing as completely private in the digital world. She assured me that they had not been cautioned nor had any formal punishment, it was merely a chat; her threat to read some of the conversations out in assembly was made in jest – but she *did* say that it was unnerving how grown up they appeared online, knowing them as she does. She also explained that she had not involved the parents as she really did not want it to be made into a big issue… ah…
I talked through everything with her, all of my concerns that had built up over the previous 24 hours, and she was understanding, but said that if anyone comes to the school with complaints about the pupils behaviour they deal with it, and they have to be able to do so. I can’t say that I disagree but I did ask that next time, I really do want to be given a heads up.
So it ended up with me understanding the action the school had taken. The parent concerned, on the other hand… well, it’s not how I would deal with it. And I think it was an overreaction for swearing teenage girls.
I have no intention of identifying the school concerned.