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Posting images of students to social media: Is it ethical?

I began doing some research on the way that different school districts, schools, teachers and parents are handling the image and likeness of children being used on the internet. Since school is back in session for a new year, I wanted to share my findings with you in the event that you were unaware of the dangers or were uninformed about what your student’s teacher is/isn’t allowed to do.

The bottom line is, nobody can really tell you–the parent or guardian–what is right and not right when it comes to what you should do with your child’s photographs. However, it is up to you to be informed with what it means when you share the images or when others share the images.

The Wall Street Journal reported back in May that by the time a child turns five, more than 1,000 of their photos will have been posted to the internet. But how can this be seen as dangerous? Many people do not check their privacy settings on the networks which they post to and that can lead to data being shared–including the exact location a photo was taken. This may sound familiar since Instagram allows you to see specific locations where users take photos. I’ll have a post on that later so you can better protect yourself. But for now, be cognizant of the fact that there can potentially be creepers in-the-know about where you live and where you take your children (and their photographs). Researchers suggest that there are always going to be unpredictable repercussions when it comes to new technologies we use. That alone sounds scary because the truth is, people do not know the degree in which something can affect someone via the internet, long term. The rule of thumb with social media, though, is expect that it is out there forever.

Victoria Nash, acting director of the Oxford Internet Institute also believes that the amount of information parents can sometimes give away through photos and status updates–like date of birth, place of birth, child’s full name or geotags–could be used by somebody who wanted to steal the child’s identity.

But how does this translate to the school setting? Surely teachers are excited for the accomplishments their students make and want to share their progress and hard work too. But this is where the lines get blurred because is it really ethical for a teacher to be sharing images of your child? Just think, they could be sharing some of the information that I noted above–so even wishing your child a simple happy birthday with their photo attached could potentially have its hazards.

NYC Department of Education has a social media policy that has been in effect since 2012. Some of the highlights from their policy include:
• “If images of students are to be posted online there must be a media consent form on file at the school for each child featured.” (NYC Department of Education in regards to images of students being posted on professional social media pages.)
• “…to maintain a professional and appropriate relationship with students, DOE employees should not communicate with students who are currently enrolled in DOE schools on personal social media sites.”
• “The posting or disclosure of personally identifiable student information or confidential information via personal social media sites, in violation of Chancellor’s Regulations, is prohibited.”
“Guidelines cannot be used for disciplinary purpose for failure to follow.”

The Ohio Education Association similarly agrees that teachers and administrators should not post anything related to a student, no matter how harmless they think it is.

The School District of Lee County perhaps had the most thorough resource for teachers and administrators to follow. What made this policy stand out is that it explained to teachers that they can still share posts that include images of the children but the posts themselves must be made by the schools. Therefore, a teacher can still show pride in the magnificent achievements within their classrooms. Highlights included:
• “Avoid posting confidential or proprietary information about the District, its students, alumni or employees. Use good ethical judgement and follow state and/or District rules and policies and federal requirements.”
• “Can I post pictures of my students on my social media accounts? The District media permissions signed by parents do not extend to the posting of student images or names on individually owned social media accounts. Pictures of students should be forwarded to the individual managing the official school accounts for distribution and sharing. You are permitted to ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ official District or school posts.”
• “Important to remember: Images of your students should not appear on your personal social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.). Exceptions of this to this include drama performances and athletic events that are considered public events.”

It’s great the the school systems are establishing a system to better protect the students. But one thing the policies did not answer was: What happens to those found in violation of the social media guidelines?

I used the above policies as examples because they had representatives that were kind enough to reach back out to me to answer my questions.

Lisa Nielsen, Director of Digital Engagement + Professional Learning for NYCDOE explained, “Our guidelines do not come with disciplinary actions. They were created to help teachers and provide guidance for best practices. If a teacher posts images of students, as long as they have not violated any chancellor regulation or laws, there is no set disciplinary action.

My personal feeling on this is that I would be concerned if there was disciplinary action. There are many perfectly acceptable times an educator may post pictures of students in social media. Many teachers are in clubs, teams, and activities with students and posting pictures of such activities is common place. I know many amazing educational leaders who celebrate their students constantly in social media. It is a powerful way to strengthen relationships with the school community.

Amity Chandler from the School District of Lee County commented, “I always frame this for teachers as the ‘What I if it were your kid” context…. it’s one thing for a school to post as a school another all together for your child to end up on a personal account of a teacher or other parent.

We monitor for this heavily and you know, we have had fewer issues than I have fingers. Teachers are excellent professionals.

We warn teachers first and explain how our media permissions work and in what context. We’ve never had a second issue but certainly, issues of students rights and FERPA could become disciplinary issues for any educator.”

I was curious what parents thought should happen if a teacher was found to be posting images of their child. The sample was collected through a survey that I posted to Facebook and Twitter. The answers ranged from, “I’m not sure but I would want the pictures removed for sure,” to “Suspension pending investigation.” The general feeling (75% of respondents) seemed to be that something should happen, but the parents were not quite sure what exactly it should be.

What was alarming is that some parents even admitted that they were not aware if their school system had rules and regulations established to protect their child. 100% of the respondents agreed that regardless, there should be rules and regulations established to protect their children.

When asked how important of an issue it is as a parent to be having someone else post photos of their children to the internet without their consent, the median was 6.25 where 1 represented that they did not feel it was an issue at all and 10 they felt it was a big issue.

Interestingly, 50% of respondents admitted to being friends with their child’s teacher on Facebook. So it can be inferred that the correlation of being friends with the teacher on Facebook did not have any influence on the parent’s decision (in this survey) to not want images of their child posted to the internet by the teacher.

So what do you think? Is enough being done to protect your child or are these rules–in your opinion–too much?

– Megan

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