November 30, 2022

What’s Not to ‘Like’? Rethinking Restrictive Social Media Policies



“Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim.”

—National Research Council, Youth, Pornography, and the Internet
(National Academic Press, 2002)

A few years ago, as members of an Illinois School Library Media Association task force, we surveyed members to gauge the intellectual freedom concerns of school librarians. Their feedback made it clear that Internet use was highly regulated by a large majority of their schools. Most had acceptable use policies, but many did not address the use of social media. They were simply banning forms of online social interaction beyond district-issued emails or teacher-controlled course pages.

As schools, we have installed locks and put up high fences to ward off undesirable content. We have made the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) into the highest fence of all. The problem is that kids have already been in the pool and will do anything to keep returning. And they are doing so with an ever-growing assortment of portable personal computing devices.

This reality leaves librarians and other school personnel in the uncomfortable role of gatekeepers. Sure, the rules say kids can’t go into the pool, but how do we manage when they all rush the fence at once? And what’s the purpose of keeping them out?

With the rollout of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), “designed to be robust and relevant to the real world,” according to the CCSS website, we can no longer view social media use in schools as an annoyance or a novelty. Besides being unrealistic, that stance is a disservice to the academic and social development of our students. It’s time to update our policies to reflect the reality and the promise of social media.

What CIPA stipulates

Let’s start by looking at what CIPA actually requires of schools that use federal E-rate funding to underwrite Internet access. Not as much as one would think.

Recipients must have in place “a policy of Internet safety for minors that includes the operation of a technology protection measure with respect to any of its computers with Internet access that protects against access through such computers to visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” The definition of “harmful to minors” only applies to certain types of pictures, images, and graphic image files—visual, not text-based depictions.

CIPA comes with two important disclaimers:

Nothing in the Act…shall be construed to prohibit a local educational agency, elementary or secondary school, or library from blocking access…to any content other than content covered by this title….

Nothing in the Act…shall be construed to require the tracking of Internet use by any identifiable minor or adult user….

In short, schools and libraries that accept E-rate funding must install filters that block visual depictions of certain kinds of material. CIPA doesn’t require them to block any other types of material—social networks, blogs, wikis, the entirety of video and photo- sharing websites, textual material, and so on. However, it doesn’t prohibit schools from doing so if they wish. School districts are free to block Facebook, YouTube, Google Docs, Pinterest, Twitter, and Wikipedia. CIPA doesn’t require schools to track Internet use by the minors under their watch, either.

Knowing what the law does and doesn’t require is a first step in developing policies for school Internet use. Next, understanding the CCSS Key Design Considerations mandate to blend research and media skills into the curriculum can inform policy development and strengthen arguments for more open access to online services.

How social media supports learning

What does successful implementation of social media use look like? The answers are as varied as the schools and classrooms across the country. The following examples illustrate alignment with both the CCSS and AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner.

In November 2013, the Chicago Area Writers Association awarded its Book of the Year Award in the category of non-traditional fiction to 30 Days to Empathy, by English teacher Jay Rehak and his students at Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School. The 11th and 12th grade students used Google Drive to collaborate on this coming-of-age story about a teen who is forced to walk in the shoes of his classmates.

This crowd-sourced novel was published in February, 2013. Where students could before work effectively in small groups, technology now allows an entire class to collaborate. How does this project align with the CCSS? In the 11th and 12th grade standards for English/Language Arts, students are expected to “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.” This closely resembles AASL standard 3.1.4: “Use technology and other information tools to organize and display knowledge and understanding in ways that others can view, use, and assess.”

In another Chicago classroom, students read news articles and developed a stance on a current legislative issue, such as the minimum wage or gun laws. Then the students identified an influence broker and developed a concise, supported argument they could deliver in the form of a “21st-century elevator speech,” or, a Tweet. Here’s an example:

While students can’t Tweet their way through an entire year, this was a useful exercise. They had to clarify their view in a few, carefully chosen words, identifying the strongest evidence to support their position. This aligns with the eighth-grade standard for English/Language Arts: “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.” Using familiar tools to gather information and engage in a real-world issue applies to AASL standard 1.1.1: “Follow an inquiry-based process in seeking knowledge in curricular subjects and make the real world connection for using this process in own life.”

As the CCSS Key Design Considerations state, media use must extend beyond English/ Language Arts classes. Students can now view real-time analysis of important events. Using Twitter, blogs, YouTube, etc., they can watch a political speech, monitor the coverage of that speech, and participate in interactive dialogue. In doing so, they engage in the ninth and 10th-grade standards for history and AASL standard 1.1.7, both of which ask students to analyze and compare authors’ points of view on similar topics.

Acceptable use: “Students shall not . . .”

Despite these positive examples of social media in the classroom, what is the general status quo in schools? Schools still routinely block access to wide swaths of online content and social media platforms that students use in their daily lives for personal and educational purposes. Instead of focusing on possibility and pedagogy, a “Thou shalt not…” approach prevails:

Many acceptable use policies (AUPs) relegate librarians and teachers to enforcer roles. Below, excerpts from some existing AUPs:

Students will not participate in chats, instant messaging services or social networking, or play computer games on school computers unless authorized by a district staff member for legitimate educational purposes.

Students will use the system only for educational and career development activities and limited, high-quality, independent student activities. The limit on activities is no more than five hours per week.

While on campus, students will not use private email except for an approved assignment that is supervised by a staff member.

Some ensure compliance by exceeding any reasonable interpretation of CIPA:

The District has taken precautions to restrict access to controversial [italics ours] or inappropriate materials; however, on a global network it is impossible to control access to all materials and an industrious user may discover controversial information.

Acceptable and ethical use policies

The AASL White Paper on Technology in Schools distinguishes between AUPs and responsible or ethical use policies. AUPs are lists of things users should not do and carry consequences for misuse. Responsible, or ethical use, policies advise users what they can do with school technology.

The white paper notes that overly restrictive policies make it difficult for schools to keep up with changing technology and that “layered” policies are advisable. For example, a district might have a general overall policy, bolstered by more specific building-level policies that address age-level differences and can be updated more frequently.

Despite the distinction the white paper makes between AUPs and ethical or responsible use policies, school districts typically fold social media and responsible use issues into their AUP documents. The consequence is that social media issues are often treated with less nuance and more restriction than is necessary or even appropriate. In updating its own policies, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) adopted a layered approach that makes a nice distinction between these types of documents. The DOE kept its general AUP-style document and added social media guidelines for staff and for students who are 13 years old and over.

Another way to “layer” the approach is to make a distinction between policies and guidelines. Policies are generally binding documents serving as a district’s insurance against litigation. Guidelines can be less restrictive recommendations for best practice and roadmaps for expectations. In some instances, it is much easier to implement guidelines than policies, which are often the sole purview of legal teams.

In a crowd-sourced social media policy from Edudemic, an educational technology blog, the list of encouraged activities precedes the list of prohibited activities. The focus is squarely on positive uses of social media, without minimizing its dangers and potential pitfalls. Edutopia’s Steven Anderson, district director of instructional technology at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (NC) Schools and ed-tech consultant, outlines a seven-step process in his blog post, “How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School.”

Creating a framework for guidelines

In collaboration with administrators, teachers and—particularly in high schools—students, we propose using the framework below to develop social media guidelines for your own school. This will help you articulate guidelines that reflect your school’s specific learning community.

  • • Principles. A statement of principles lets you set an affirmative tone for guidelines rather than a prohibitive one. Here is where you describe your learning environment and state why social media is integral to student learning. Define learning rather than technology as the driver, emphasizing behaviors rather than tools.
    • Collaborative Learning Environment. Consider what your school/district’s expectations are for communication, sharing, safety, and appropriateness. What are the expectations of students—from behavior to self-identification—and how will they be monitored? Consider referencing your school/district’s AUP here.
    • Tools. Guidelines should be device-neutral. However, it’s important to address equity of access and programs specific to your school, e.g., one-to-one, that might inform your guidelines.
    • Education. Integration of any technology requires education for staff and students. How will you ensure that teachers have professional development and support?

What kind of training/instruction will students receive?

As librarians, we are ideally situated to help our students harness the learning opportunities of social media and develop well-rounded digital footprints. We must assist our colleagues—not in the creation of new units or projects—but in the integration of social media into existing curricula. To do these things consistently and effectively, we must garner the support of building and district-level administrators, many of whom are reluctant to leap into the uncertain waters behind the fence. Constructive social media guidelines can help alleviate their fears and open the pool to all.

Frances Jacobson Harris is the librarian at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, IL and the author of I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online, American Library Association, 2011. Megan Murray Cusick is the Intellectual Freedom Function Representative for the Illinois School Library Media Association and a librarian at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School in Chicago.