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.

Interesting though.

I have no intention of identifying the school concerned.

18 responses

  1. You’ve written that up very well. I admire the judgement of the teacher concerned – I think I’d have been happy with her handling of it were my kids in that position. Perhaps she could have tipped you off about what she was doing, but there’s a fine line between having the quiet word she intended, and risking inflaming a whole load more parental involvement that really wouldn’t have been justified. Tough call.

    I guess one should never underestimate the power of an audience (particularly kids) to amplify what’s going on though, into something juicier. And I am reminded of the old advice that crusty old partners would give to new bugs at The Big Crusty Firm I used to work for: “never put into an email what you wouldn’t be happy seeing printed on the front page of the FT”. This was before social networks, but I think the sentiment carries across. A tough lessons to learn – if it’s out there on the internet, it’s never truly private. The security loopholes always tend to have heads and hands attached to them.

    Great to see you blogging again!

  2. Yes I agree with you. And am not really supposed to be blogging until I leave the Home Office but I figured this is so nothing to do with work I should be OK! I will be back properly in August. (And over on Rewired State of course).

  3. Interesting situation. I’ve told my daughter over and over again that anything she puts on Facebook is public. It doesn’t matter what your privacy settings are, once you’ve posted it, it’s essentially public and out of your control.

  4. Sorry – I’m still troubled by this. Though that is two good lessons for anyone to learn and remember (you can get caught, and nothing is 100% private online).

    But there are too many other things that would worry me if this happenned to my daughter. Did the school take possession of ‘the file’ of printouts? Why? What have they done with it? And why did the teacher think it was ok to make ‘threats’ ‘in jest’?

    You’ve said yourself – Jess was more embarrassed about what school might have seen and cleaned everything up in case a teacher was reading. Not that she cleaned it up in case any other parent saw it?

    And surely no child should come home in a state because of what a teacher’s said to them? She’s only 12 – I’d expect a letter of explanation to come home with her at least.

    I don’t know the school, but what would they do if a parent went to school saying a group of girls had been swearing and talking to boys in the street? Or had been heard swearing in someone’s kitchen? What’s the difference about it being online?

    I can see it’s tricky – but it still doesn’t sit right for me. I’d be happier for a school to admit they didn’t quite know how to handle it and to do as you did – ask a wider public for their thoughts. Would be interested to see their policies on this one!

  5. This *is* a tricky one. I’m pretty much in agreement with Paul, that the teacher’s response was probably the best given the invidious position she found herself in.

    The parent who did the digging and printing out is an idiot, of course. If I were the teacher I might have been tempted to tell them to take their file away and refuse to look at it.

    Perhaps the school could take this as an opportunity to provide some proper education around the safe and effective use of the web?

  6. Yes, I suspect there will be something actually written in the school policy now on social networking and the school’s responsibility. I feel far more easy with it, a bit disturbed still that someone read Jess’s conversations and her comments on her friends’ walls. Jess herself, now that she absolutely knows how her information was accessed, accepts that FB is not a private place. It does feel a bit like what used to happen in my day, when occasionally parents would pick up extensions and listen in on their children’s conversations on the telephone, but in my own experience of that, the punishment was restricted to the child of the parent, not the other child. I think that this is where it is still wrong – the parent is the one who has stepped over a boundary. But I am not taking this any further, that would just end up in all sorts of horrible-ness.

  7. With a 12 year old Facebook using daughter myself I would have been happier if the teacher had told the other parent that it was inappropriate of her to snoop on other people’s children and not taking any action as it was out of school time.

  8. There is a lot to reflect on this, not least the point that we are all at a painfully early stage the social implications of new technologies and that our children are having to navigate a different world from the one we remember. Some of this is quite small changes (in one sense) having very big effects: the overheard phone calls you remember are a bit like watching other people’s facebook conversations, but they are also fundamentally different: you couldn’t print the transcript (and nor could you be sure of disguising the click). So now the poor teacher has something which looks like evidence, which feels very different from the report of an overheard conversation and which in consequence is much harder to ignore – even if ignoring might arguably have been the smarter move.
    My school had an unwritten understanding that what was done in school uniform was something the school had a right to be interested in; anything done in civvies was 0utside the space of their proper authority – but that was when there was only the physical world. If this school has blocked Facebook, then arguably anything done on FB is outside the scope of the school’s activity. But it is precisely those binary statuses which are harder to maintain in an unblinking online world.
    David Weinberger has a lovely concept of ‘leeway’:

    Leeway is the only way we manage to live together: We ignore what isn’t our business. We cut one another some slack. We forgive one another when we transgress.

    By bending the rules we’re not violating fairness. The equal and blind application of rules is a bureaucracy’s idea of fairness. Judiciously granting leeway is what fairness is all about. Fairness comes in dealing with the exceptions.

    That takes us back to the unfamiliarity of it all. All good teachers know about leeway, even if they never think of it in those terms, and they know how to apply it in the real world environment of school. Many fewer will be comfortable with the implications of leeway in the online world – and why should they be any more than the rest of us?

    Or as John Naughton put it in today’s Observer:

    It’s clear that momentous events are afoot; there are all kinds of conflicting rumours and theories, but nobody knows how things will pan out. Only with the benefit of hindsight will we get a clear idea of what was going on. But the clarity that hindsight bestows is also misleading, because it understates how confusing things appeared to people at the time.

    So it is with us now. We’re living through a radical transformation of our communications environment. Since we don’t have the benefit of hindsight, we don’t really know where it’s taking us.

    None of which is much help to you, Jess, her teachers – or the parent of her friend. But your judgement sounds pretty good – as ever – to me.

  9. Great post Emma,

    I agree that this situation is now finished and is in others minds a closed matter.

    But I love the lessons here and glad you haven’t named the school as they merely in my view reacted poorly to an angry parent.

    I would have preferred the school question the parent and their behaviour but also advise that as the school clearly as a ban on access and the incidents were out of school time and not of a bullying nature – the issue should have been left to the parent to resolve themselves. If this were the case I wonder how far the parent would have gone in talking direct to you an letting you decide the appropriate action to take.

    I feel “some” parents expect schools to resolve parenting issues over and above what they should be doing. Teachers are good people and I think your school will learn from this and righly move on – But I also think ALL schools should think about what their position would be.

    Online privacy should mean something. As a parent myself you expect that when you allow someone access to your information they will act responsibily with it. For me it will make me think about who I accept behind my firewalls and what I say. The parent I believe went too far and obviously doesn’t yet fully understand the social web and perhaps thinks Facebook “will” give you cancer. As Dave said more awareness and education required.

    Perhaps this type of awareness ought to be addressed by Martha Lane Fox in her role as these are also barriers to online engagement and interaction.

  10. When I first read your tweets on this I was shocked/appalled, quickly placing blame on the school. Your very fair and balanced post above shows that, on balance, the school probably did the best thing available to it (as did you, btw, by constructively engaging with the school about this).

    It’s the original parent’s behaviour here that I can’t get over. That they thought it was reasonable to approach things in that way is a shock to me; that they also thought the school was the right way to address this as well, rather than, say, talking to other parents about it, is also troubling.

    Maybe I just haven’t had enough exposure to what other parents think is reasonable when it comes to their own children. :-/

  11. As the Dad of another 12 year old, Facebook using daughter, I’m with Euan. The teacher taking any action was no appropriate.

    Our management of Miss H on Facebook is similar to yours, Emma. Being her friend is a “condition of use” and we have clear and unambiguous social network use rules. I’m under no illusion that this will keep everyone out of harm’s way, but it’s a better start than none.

    The school ought to have kept a professional distance from non-school stuff and the prying parent exhibited less than stellar judgment.

    Had this been a case of bullying or some such, different thing altogether. But dropping a few ill-chosen words and oh, my, “talking to boys”. Sigh.

  12. I with Euan – this had nothing to do with the school; and I think that the teacher should have told the nosey parent that, and suggested that they contact you directly if they had a concern.

    Have you spoken to that parent, BTW?

    Either way, Jess is lucky to have you, and not that person, as her parent.

  13. I think, in this instance the teacher showed balance, maybe a note home explaining the situation may have prevented 24hrs of stress on your part. My situation was a little different. My own daughter is 15. We keep the computer in a family room and she is allowed on facebook but not twitter. I have access to her facebook and reprimand her if she gets too shouty. Like other parents here, I have warned her that what is written online is accessible and eternal. A few weeks ago the school sent a letter home threatening legal action against my daughter for online bullying against a teacher. Trying to fight the kneejerk reaction I was very upset and queried my tearful child at length. She showed me every group she’d joined which included a school group and in it she’d stated that in her opinion the head was wrong for keeping children in at lunchtime during the snow. I phoned the school the next day and was told that she was ‘no longer in trouble’ as other children had been identified and ‘dealt with’. The letter had been sent to every member of the group regardless of whether they had posted or not. A headteacher that cannot show discretion but directs a child to do so is a poor leader in my view. And these scenarios are happening across the UK. Social media is here to stay and maybe schools needs to be given some child friendly, realistic guidelines instead of allowing them to threaten to criminalise a child who says she likes throwing snowballs.

  14. Hmm, I don’t agree that the school shouldn’t have looked at the printouts.

    If the conversations had contained serious bullying, it certainly would have been right for the school to examine them. Not because they have any innate moral authority but because they’re more or less the only ones in a position to do anything about it (assuming the parents don’t know each other).

    It sounds to me like the Head did more or less the right thing — an informal (and hopefully instructive) chat rather than anything heavy-handed or overbearing. In that context, a joke about reading them out in assembly seems very appropriate — in fact, the metaphor is just right, and sets the privacy implications in a context that 12-year-olds might understand more readily.

    At face value it seems like the other parent is the one who’s actions are suspect. But I’d really like to understand their motivations. Were they concerned that all the children in the group were somehow at risk? Did they feel they were doing a favour to the other parents by alerting them to things that they felt were seriously inappropriate (similar to the way Emma might have reacted to bullying)?

    Or were they just being precious and trying to manipulate the school into disciplining other people’s children?

    All very interesting. And definitely no easy answers.

  15. Emma,

    thanks for sharing this – it is really helpful as I know my sister has had issues with my nieces actions on Facebook. At a recent school governors meeting we had some training about online security for children which was a bit of an eye-opener for many there.

    All food for thought – and a big meal it is!


  16. Great post. It roused my sense of righteous indignation then punctured it 🙂

    It highlights the opposing pressures that school’s face when the digital world and the school world collide. I guess that the one piece of advice for the school would be to sketch out a policy for this area that is consistent with their policies for the face to face world then publish them to all stakeholders for comment.

    I guess that we would expect the school to be alert to cyber bullying betwen pupils (that overlaps with school time)? Or maybe that is something that they feel is outside their remit. Whatever, it seems sensible for them to share their views and reach a concensus with pupils, staff and parents.

    We blogged on the topic of cyberbullying recently: http://www.brightbeehive.com/blog/2010/5/14/schools-pupils-facebook-and-digital-bullying.html?lastPage=true#comment8795278

  17. Pingback: An interesting read on Facebook, children and privacy « A work in progress

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