How School Social Media Accounts Put Student Privacy at Risk

student privacy
(Image credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

U.S. schools and districts routinely share student photos and names on public school social media accounts, new research from the American Educational Research Association reveals. 

The study’s authors estimate that more than 4.9 million posts have included identifiable images of students on public Facebook pages, and about 726,000 of those posts are thought to identify one or more students by their first and last names. 

The common media release forms many parents sign at the beginning of the year often don’t explicitly include social media. In addition, many educators and parents are unaware of the potentially harmful ways in which student images and names from social media posts can be used, says a co-author of the study, Joshua M. Rosenberg.

“This study, we hope, is a constructive warning,” says Rosenberg, an assistant professor of STEM education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “This is not meant to say all educational social media use is bad or dangerous, or that there's any high degree of risk associated with a single post. It's more saying that in aggregate, and over time, there's some potentially serious downsides that come from sharing this much personally identifiable information in a publicly accessible way.” 

Student Privacy: Serious Downsides to Public Posts 

The dangers of schools posting student names and pictures on social media fall broadly under three categories, Rosenberg says. 

1) Companies and governments accessing the data

“We know that foreign and domestic governments access public social media data,” Rosenberg says. “What do they use that for? We don't really know. But in many cases, it's for things that we know adults don't like, and they wouldn't like for their children to be wrapped up in.” 

For example, there are companies that collect public social media posts and other public internet data and compile it into a database that law enforcement agencies can use to probabilistically identify suspects for crimes. “This is an example where it's probably not illegal, but it's the kind of thing that parents and kids probably wouldn't like if a photo that was shared on a school or district page ended up in a database used by one of these policing companies to identify possible suspects in a crime,” says Rosenberg. 

2) People seeking images of children 

“There's data from Australia that suggests that around half of the images shared on child pedophilia websites came from public sources,” Rosenberg says. “These photos could end up being collected and presented in such a way that they look very different, and they are used for very creepy, and potentially really damaging purposes.” 

3) Individual risk

“We've heard many anecdotal stories of kids in custody disputes, in which one parent looks on the social media pages of their child's school or district to try to find out where they are, so that they can try to find that child and possibly do things that run counter to some custody agreement or some protection order,” Rosenberg says. “There's also the risk of stalking of individual kids. We have anecdotes of this.” 

How Schools and Parents Can Be Safer with Social Media Use 

The first step to better protect student privacy is for school leaders and parents to start thinking more about potential risks, Rosenberg says. Unlike personal social media accounts, school accounts are always public and often have many more followers than an individual user would. School accounts can also place students in specific geographic areas in ways even public personal social media accounts don’t. 

Rosenberg advises school leaders to make their school and district accounts private, though he acknowledges this has downsides, including less visibility for posts and more administrative work approving followers to the account. “That single step alone would prevent the large-scale collection of these data for purposes that are hard to anticipate at this point,” he says. “Another change we suggest making is to not post photos that readily identify students' faces.”

He also suggests never posting students’ full names, and instead posting only their first name or only their first name and last initial.  

Finally, Rosenberg advises school leaders to review their media release policy and make sure it is current. “From a study that is ongoing, we found that less than 20% of [school media release policies] mention social media explicitly,” he says. “So a lot of these media release policies were written for a different era when social media use wasn't ubiquitous.” 

Parents should also read these types of releases carefully and talk with their children’s educators. “I would encourage parents and students to ask questions about how schools and districts are sharing this kind of content,” he says. 

The goal of the research is to spark broader conversations around this issue and serve as a warning. “It is definitely not a criticism of educational leaders,” Rosenberg says. “Myself and my colleagues have all shared information about ourselves, and family members on social media. And so we see this more as a constructive dialogue that we hope to start where we can slowly nudge ourselves and others into using social media in a way that doesn't have as many potential downsides for student privacy.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.