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Education Department Rolls Out Rules to Help Kids Navigate Social Media

By Amy Zimmer | January 13, 2014 6:45am
 A teacher looks on as a student uses a computer at a Manhattan high school.
A teacher looks on as a student uses a computer at a Manhattan high school.
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NYC Department of Education

MANHATTAN — When it comes to college applications and job prospects, anything you tweet can — and often will — be used against you.

In a bid to keep students' activity on social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube from torpedoing their chances of getting into college or landing jobs years down the line, the city's Department of Education is rolling out new social media guidelines this month for students 13 and older, officials told DNAinfo New York.

“It was the students who wanted this,” said Jane Pook, the DOE’s executive director for digital communication policy and strategy.

“Kids are realizing [social media] is not just the new, cool toy. They want to know what college admissions officers and people hiring look for. It’s beginning to dawn on these kids that this is going to follow them around.”

 "It is our job as educators to understand digital tools and help our students responsibly navigate this world,” the DOE’s website says of its social media guidelines.
"It is our job as educators to understand digital tools and help our students responsibly navigate this world,” the DOE’s website says of its social media guidelines.
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NYC Department of Education

According to workplace surveys, nearly a quarter of college admissions officers say they look at prospective students' digital footprints, while 66 percent of human resource managers research job seekers online, and 94 percent of headhunters use or plan to use social media as a recruiting tool.

The DOE's nine-page document gives guidelines on privacy settings, cyberbullying and how kids can protect themselves from revealing too much personal information. They advise students to be responsible for what they post online and to assume that anyone has access. The new online handbook also urges students to pause before posting anything aggressive or inflammatory that could be hurtful, embarrass someone or negatively affect future job prospects.

The DOE guidelines are aimed at students aged 13 and older, since that’s the starting age for Facebook users. But it will likely be followed by guidelines for younger children, Pook noted. These recommendations come on the heels of social media guidelines the DOE created for educators in the spring of 2012 to help them create a clear line between personal and professional accounts.

“We were getting so many complaints from parents: ‘My kid somehow accessed a teacher on Facebook and saw a picture of them on the beach with a beer,’” said Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, general counsel for the DOE. “[Teachers] weren’t expecting their students to see their pictures of family and friends. Principals were calling my office daily, saying, ‘We welcome social media but we’re scared.’”

The social media guidelines for educators have been effective, Jackson-Chase said.

“My phone doesn’t ring anymore," she said. "We’re not getting the same angry, concerned phone calls.”

DOE officials spent nine months soliciting input from parents, teachers, principals, librarians, guidance counselors and students — especially from Chelsea’s Hudson High School of Learning Technologies, Pook noted.

Two students from the tech-centric school have internships at the DOE and are creating infographics based on the guidelines to share with their peers through the DOE’s website, Twitter account, Facebook pages and “old media” channels such as posters and handouts. There will also be professional development options for educators who want to incorporate the lessons in their classrooms.

“The goal wasn’t, ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that. [Rather] moving into the next century, we want people to see social media as a place that’s welcoming,” Jackson-Chase said, explaining the need to strike a balance between free expression and what can be shared in and around the school environment.

The guidelines are intended to cover online behavior outside school that can have a very real impact inside the classroom, as well as the increasing use of social media for academic purposes, DOE officials noted. Many tech-savvy teachers have class websites or Facebook pages to connect with students and parents outside the classroom, or use blogs to post assignments or even share student work. Some schools use Twitter accounts to share school announcements.

Tim Woda, an Internet and child-safety advocate from the Virginia-based uknowkids.com, which helps parents digitally monitor their children, said it was important for schools to teach kids about social media issues like safety and bullying. Not all parents talk with their children about it, he said, especially in less affluent families, where there's a "digital divide" and less computer access.

“In some respects, it’s a little bit like math,” he said. “Fast forward to when these kids graduate college. Can you fathom how a kid will get through the world if [they're] not digitally literate? It's a core skill set that kids will need.”