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Managing Boundaries in the Age of Social Media

Walk through any hallway in any school in America and you’ll see them: smartphones, tablets, iPads — it seems students are constantly connected. Pope Francis himself, in a speech delivered on Jan 24, 2016, at the 50th World Communications Day said, “Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected. The Internet can be used wisely to build a society which is healthy and open to sharing.”

Because young people have such a presence on social media – according to the PEW Research Internet Project’s Nationals survey of teens and parents, 95% of teens are online and 81% of these use social media such as SnapChat, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – teachers, youth ministers and other educators working with young people are incorporating social media into their everyday curriculum.

This has posed some challenges; namely, how to use social media effectively while at the same time ensuring professionalism among its users.

The Archdiocese of Boston’s Guidelines for the Use of Social Media state that those posting online on behalf of archdiocesan parish or schools organizations need to take care in choosing what material to post and how to interact with children online. Most importantly, parents should constantly be made aware of any contact you may have with their children via social media, states the guidelines.

The guidelines stress that parents must always be kept informed, either through written notice or through face-to-face communication. Parents must also be asked what form of communication is preferred.

“When communicating with minors electronically, obtain permission from parents to do so,” the guidelines continue.  “If parents request their child not be contacted electronically, cease all electronic communication with the child.”

In addition, in the case of young children (i.e., elementary school and middle school students), only parents should be contacted directly.

The archdiocesan guidelines also urge educators to save copies of online conversations whenever possible, especially those that concern the personal sharing of a teen or young adult. If there is ever any doubt whether a conversation may be inappropriate, a supervisor should be contacted immediately, and the conversation should be terminated. If you receive an inappropriate personal communication from a minor, keep a copy of the message and inform your supervisor immediately.

Adhering to these guidelines will allow for educators to better communicate with their students, while at the same time ensuring professionalism.

However, even clearly-stated guidelines do not always prevent the misuse of social media. Hans Mundahl, founding partner of Hans Mundahl and Associates, a New Hampshire-based digital strategy consultant who works with schools to ensure responsible social media communications, encourages schools to follow three basic rules. First, every school should have its own, clearly stated, policy with regard to the way the school intends to use social media. This policy should clearly state how the school will use social media for marketing; how it will use social media for communication within the school community; i.e, the use of social media relative to students and teachers, peer communications and extracurricular activities; and how the  school will respond in the event something goes wrong.

“Whatever that policy is should be on par with their peer set,” Mundahl said.

Mundahl’s second recommendations are “no brainers,” he said.  These include ensuring that faculty members never “friend” a student on any social media site, such as Facebook or Instagram. In addition, Mundahl said, he encourages the use of apps such as REMIND, which allows teachers to text reminders to students without disclosing their personal cell phone numbers.

Third, Mundahl recommends that schools put into place appropriate mechanisms to notice when incidents such as cyber-bullying are taking place.

“There is some very good software available so that administrators can passively listen in on the communications that are taking place in their schools,” he said. Programs such as SproutSocial or Hootsuite allow users to “not be caught unawares” if a problem should arise.

By being proactive, he explained, schools, youth organizations and religious education programs can navigate the digital age and use social media and other forms of digital communications as a way to build community, foster learning and cultivate a successful learning environment.

The Catholic Schools Office Can Help

At the archdiocese, the Catholic Schools Office (CSO) is a valuable resource for schools looking for strategies on how to thoughtfully integrate technology into the classroom and to develop a digital communications plan.

“Twitter, for example, is robust social media platform that can be harnessed by educators and administrations,” explained Dr. Amy Ryan, Associate Superintendent for Academics and Digital Learning. She further noted, “Educators have established professional learning communities (#catholicedchat) and convene weekly to exchange ideas and to share best practices. In the classroom, Twitter can serve as a vehicle for engaging with the larger world and to converse with Pope Francis (@Pontifex), children’s authors (@The_Pigeon), and astronauts (@NASA_Astronauts).”

“The Catholic Schools Office can help schools by meeting with a staff member to go over basic guidelines and to help draft a usage plan,” explained Meghan Stellman, Communications Coordinator of the CSO. The CSO can also provide an overview to social media via webinars and workshops with the Catholic Schools Foundation.

“These professional development activities introduce attendees to various platforms, and also help principals familiarize themselves with what’s out there and how various platforms can be used in the educational community,” Stellman stated.

Because “navigating the Internet and the ever-changing world of social media can be challenging,” she continued, “we also recognize schools who are doing well in the social media arena and ask them to support schools who are wading into the realm of social media and engagement.”

Schools looking for assistance with integrating social media into the classroom or developing their own digital literacy plan should contact the Catholic Schools Office, Stellman said.

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