Why My Students Shouldn’t Friend Me on Social Media

I just started using Snapchat in earnest this past weekend. My 14-year-old sister just left for her eighth grade class trip to our nation’s capital this morning, and I wanted to make sure I would be able to receive the Snapchat messages she would send out to family members. Currently I am more than a little enthralled by the filters available, particularly the “face swap” option. So far, though, most of the Snapchats (snaps?) I have sent were pleas for help from my sister: “HOW DO I SEND A VIDEO? HOW DO I MAKE SEVERAL IN A ROW? HOW DO I SAVE WHAT YOU SEND ME?”

I can see how this app appeals to the younger set. It’s immediately gratifying with decreased risk of longterm consequences. There’s a lot of creative elements to it. And it’s fun!

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In fact, I feel that way about a lot of social media — that there’s a lot of positive things about it. Social media is a great way to keep in touch with people you know, personally or otherwise. You can interact with businesses and other institutions. You can spread good news or ask for help. Sure, there is potential for negative interactions, but that’s a risk you take every time you leave your home.

So I can see why kids younger than thirteen want to use social media.

However, in the United States at least, there exists a law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This law does not state that kids under thirteen may not use social media websites and apps. However, the law does detail what responsibilities an operator has to protect children’s privacy and safety online. These responsibilities are numerous and burdensome enough that many social media operators simply opt out by officially disallowing kids under thirteen from using their services.

I am not sure how I feel about this law. I can definitely understand why it would be created, and I do feel some protections are necessary, especially for children. On the other hand, I believe children need to be mentored through the online world and start developing some sense of digital citizenship pretty early. It’s one of the reasons I am glad our school uses Google Apps, especially Gmail and Google Classroom. (“Most recognized non-profit organizations are exempt from most of the requirements of COPPA,” according to the Wikipedia article.) I have also read that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t agree with this law (though I suspect his reasons may have more to do with profit than with education).

However, no matter how I feel about this law, I will comply with it, for the sake of my job. If a student connects with me on social media, and I know that they are under the age of thirteen, not only will I refuse their connection, I will report their account to whatever website or app we are using. (Whether I accept the connections of former students over thirteen is a separate issue, as is whether or not I accept connections from students’ family members.)

This is an interesting topic to me and I think I might like to use it to power a discussion with my third graders on Google Classroom. After all, they are affected by this law more directly than I am, and more directly than the people who made the law. It would be interesting to learn their perspectives. So if anyone can point me to any writing on the subject that is around a third-grade reading level (or could be adjusted to a third grade reading level) I would appreciate it!

(Also, I am curious as to whether there are any educational ways to use Snapchat, even if I can’t use Snapchat that way myself.)

Update: I saw on Twitter this morning that a local university has a Snapchat schedule, where different student groups “take over” the university Snapchat account. It’s a way to bring awareness of niche interests to a wider audience of students. I imagine such an idea could be tooled for an elementary setting. It could be a classroom job the way we have line leaders, paper collectors, and so on – “social media manager.” A student or two could take over the classroom’s social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook page, Snapchat) to send content out to parents throughout a given week. The accounts would still be managed mainly by an adult, but students could share responsibility for content and delivery.

Update Again: One of our first grade teachers used Snapchat to take photos of students using the “dog face” filter, then printed them out. Students used the photos to decorate their writing prompts, “If I Were a Dog.”

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