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Social Media and Students: The Basics

It's a common view among lawyers and academics that laws and policies struggle to keep up with the pace of technology. As children use smartphones at an increasingly younger age, school administrators find themselves struggling to create policies that balance the positives and negatives of student use of social media and the Internet. Social media can help students communicate in beneficial ways that lead to a more effective learning environment, but there are risks such as distraction and cyberbullying.

This article provides an overview of social media as it relates to students and school policies. Also including in this section is a discussion of cyberbullying, sexting, and information for consulting with an education law attorney. Check out FindLaw's Student Codes of Conduct and Bullying and the Law sections for related articles.

What Is Social Media?

The term "social media" refers to websites and applications that facilitate communication over the Internet. Some of the most popular social media companies include Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram. Some social media sites have a specific purpose -- LinkedIn, for example, is dedicated to professional networking -- while others provide users with a way to upload pictures and videos and to chat with others.

Children and Cell Phones

According to a 2015 survey, of 2,290 U.S. parents, over half of 6-year-old children have cell phones. The most common reason given for buying cell phones for young children was to allow parents to stay in contact at any time. Interestingly, 20 percent of parents provided cell phones so that their children could "keep up with friends at school."

Cyberbullying and Sexting

Bullying was a source of angst and frustration for students long before the Internet and social media age. Some of us may remember threats and taunting from schoolmates during recess or lunch time. However, cyberbullying is arguably more harmful due to the pervasive reach of the Internet. In the past, students found refuge from bullying when they went home; but today, cyberbullies can use the Internet to torment victims even after school hours. Meanwhile, an embarrassing social media post can be shared with the entire school at the click of a mouse.

Sexting is a worry for school administrators who supervise older children. According to a 2014 study, roughly one in five middle school students has engaged in sexting, and in some incidents, students have been charged with a crime for sending graphic photos of other students. Unfortunately, there have been a number of suicides in recent years related to sexting.

See Cyberbullying and Social Media to learn more.

Examples of Social Media Policies in Schools

School districts are largely free to enact their own social media policies. As one might expect, this discretion has led to widely different approaches.

Some school districts encourage students and staff to communicate with each other through social media, as long as certain rules are followed. Generally, students are required to communicate in a respectful manner, to avoid posting copyrighted material, and to avoid engaging in cyberbullying.

On the other hand, some school districts approach student use of social media far more warily. For example, one district in California prohibited students from posting any "inappropriate" material, with deemed violators disallowed from participating in extracurricular activities. Schools in Illinois can demand that a student divulge his or her social media passwords if there's reason to believe that the student violated school rules or policies in online posts or messages. Finally, Michigan is considering a bill that would require all schools in the state to create and publish social media guidelines, although the bill doesn't contain specific requirements regarding the content.

As school districts and states continue to grapple with social media policies, we can expect divergent approaches, some of which will no doubt be controversial.

Getting Help

If you have questions about your school district's or state's social media policies and rules, an attorney can help. He or she can also help you to ensure that your child uses social media in a positive and beneficial manner. You can consult with an attorney who specializes in education law through FindLaw.

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