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Social Networks and Students

University instructors have it somewhat easier than K12 teachers: accepting "friend" requests from our students, especially our adult and non-traditional students, isn't much of an ethical quagmire. Still, you have to be careful and have some guidelines or you'll risk trouble.

1) I only accept "friend" requests from former students who are 21 or older, so nobody can claim I have favorites or suggest anything untoward. Connecting to young students is, in my opinion, always a bad idea — especially for male teachers, but we've seen female teachers have "problems" online, too.

I explain to students that it isn't that I don't like them or want to be friends later in life, but it is important to maintain professional standing while they are in my courses.

2) LinkedIn is the "safest" social network for teachers to remain connected to former students. It is a professional, career-oriented network that is more about employment than sharing beach photos.

3) You can't stop students from "following you" on some networks, but you don't need (and usually shouldn't) follow current students in return. Twitter and Google+ feature "follow" options and Facebook has a "subscribe" feature. I know students follow my writing Twitter account, and I keep those postings professional and focused on writing.

4) Parents might want to "friend" or "follow" — and that's more complicated. Some parents are also educators or writers. If someone is a colleague or friend, I'm not going to "unfriend" him or her simply because a child is in my course. We have to be realistic, especially in smaller communities. Your social life and professional life will overlap, especially among parents.

5) Be careful to adjust privacy settings! Students can and will search for you online out of curiosity. You don't need students, parents, administrators, or some colleagues seeing the pictures of your wild vacations in Mexico. I set most posts on Facebook to "friends only" and post relatively impersonal things to Twitter or LinkedIn.

6) You cannot control what friends (or former friends) post online. Remember that anything you email  or share with friends might end up online. In fact, the more embarrassing or personal something is, the more likely friends will feel compelled to share it.

The best advice I can offer: imagine the worst consequences when you "connect" online or "share" posts publicly. I know that some blog posts might offend colleagues, but I try to keep as professional a tone as possible. Sometimes, obviously, I do post personal opinions and my theories on a number of topics, but I try to maintain a certain level of decorum.

I do email and message friends. I'm sure some of what I have shared online in private would be embarrassing in public. That's why you should always consider the "friends" you have online carefully. Nobody has 1000 true friends, and it isn't a contest to collect the most followers — especially among your students.

If you write a great blog on screenwriting, then you might have thousands of followers, including your students. That's acceptable. Having 1000 "close friends" on Facebook is probably unacceptable.

Think ahead. Especially online.
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