Social Media and Students: The Basics
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed October 11, 2023
In the digital age, social media platforms have become integral to most people's lives, particularly for students. These platforms provide a space for interaction and expression. Knowing how social media use interacts with student conduct codes, federal law, and school policies is essential.
School administrators struggle to create policies that balance the competing factors relating to students' use of social media. On the one hand, social media can help students communicate in beneficial ways. This may lead to a more effective learning environment. Yet social media use in schools poses risks, such as distraction and cyberbullying.
What Is Social Media?
"Social media" refers to websites and applications that facilitate online communication. Social media is a term for digital platforms where users can share content and interact with each other. Common examples include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter. Other platforms like Discord, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitch, WhatsApp, and YouTube fall under the umbrella as well.
Some social media sites have a specific purpose. For example, LinkedIn is dedicated to professional networking. Many social media platforms allow users to upload pictures and videos. Most also allow users to chat with others directly.
Users create social media accounts. From there, they can share posts, comment, "like," and follow other users. These platforms form a significant part of social networking today. However, how students use these accounts can affect their school life.
Children and Cellphones
High school and middle school students now routinely have their own cellphones. According to a 2019 survey, over half of the children in the U.S. owned smartphones by age 11. The most common reason for giving cellphones to young children was to allow parents to stay in contact. Another 20% of parents provided cellphones so their children could "keep up with friends."
These cellphones give users access to various social media apps. This means students are more connected than ever. But there is a flip side. Unrestricted use of social media can lead to concerns like cyberbullying and sexting.
Cyberbullying and Sexting
Cyberbullying, in which targets are threatened or harassed online, is a growing problem. Sexting is the sharing of explicit photos or messages. Sexting can also lead to significant issues and safety concerns, especially involving minors. School officials may take disciplinary action in both cases.
Bullying was an issue for students long before the internet and the social media age. Former students may remember threats and taunting from schoolmates. Cyberbullying is arguably more harmful due to the internet's pervasive reach. In the past, students found refuge from peers' bullying when they went home. But today, cyberbullies can use the internet to torment victims, both during and after school hours. Meanwhile, an embarrassing social media post can be shared with the entire school with one click.
Sexting is a worry for school administrators who supervise older children. According to data as of 2022, about 14% of middle and high school students reported having sent explicit photos to others, and 23% had received them. Even more had sent or received explicit messages (including those without photos) — 19% and 35%, respectively.
In some instances, students have been charged with a crime for sending graphic photos of themselves or of other students. When minors are involved, such images may fall under the category of child pornography and lead to felony charges. And a digital photo can be nearly impossible to erase from the internet.
Unfortunately, several suicides in recent years have been linked to the unexpected consequences of sexting. See Cyberbullying and Social Media to learn more.
Examples of Social Media Policies in Schools
Many educational institutions now have policies governing social media use. These policies are often part of a more extensive student code of conduct or an "acceptable use policy." They provide guidelines on what is allowed and what is not. School districts are generally free to enact their own social media policies. This discretion has led to widely different approaches.
Some school districts encourage social media use between students and staff. They might encourage communication via social media, especially school-sanctioned platforms. Users must follow specific rules. Generally, students are required to communicate respectfully. They must also avoid posting copyrighted material or engaging in cyberbullying.
Some school districts approach student use of social media far more warily. For example, one district in California prohibited students from posting or even interacting with any material that school staff found "inappropriate." Critics said that meant students could be punished simply for clicking the "like" button on a post. Under the policy, violators could be banned from participating in extracurricular activities.
Meanwhile, schools in Illinois can demand that a student divulge their social media passwords to school officials. Under a law that took effect in 2015, administrators must have reason to believe the student's online posts or messages will show that they violated school rules or policies.
As school districts and states grapple with social media guidelines, you can expect divergent approaches. For instance, a policy might state that students cannot use social media to bully others. It may prevent sharing explicit content or threatening others. Breaking these rules might lead to sanctions such as suspension or expulsion. Schools are working on initiatives to inform students about these rules. They should also inform them of the potential consequences of violating them.
School Staff Members and Social Media
Students aren't the only ones who must be mindful of their social media use. Staff members are also bound by rules set by school or university policies. These are usually included in the code of conduct or employee handbook. Teachers and other staff must ensure their social media content does not disrupt the school environment or break laws.
Student Privacy Laws Under FERPA
While students may face disciplinary action over their social media content, they have legal rights. Federal law protects student privacy. An example is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In some cases, off-campus activities — including social media use — might fall under these protections.
Moreover, the First Amendment protects free speech, which can apply to student speech on social media. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that limits may be set. In some cases, the court sided with schools' restrictions, particularly when student speech disrupts the school environment. In others, the justices stood with students who faced punishment for certain protests or off-campus speech.
Understanding privacy settings is crucial for students using social media accounts. Privacy settings control who can see a user's content. Mistakes can lead to unwanted sharing of personal information. This can lead to school issues or even attention from law enforcement.
Getting Help With a Social Media-Related Incident
The intersection of school policies, state law, and federal law related to social media is complex. School officials work to balance the rights of students with the need to maintain a safe and productive learning environment.
If you have questions about your school's, district's, or state's social media policies and rules, a lawyer can help. You can consult with an attorney who specializes in education law to find out more about your and your child's rights and how to protect them.
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