[an error occurred while processing this directive]

learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
January092009

What Role Should Teachers Play in Policing the Net?

A drama unfolded on the messaging service Twitter last week after a bipolar woman posted a note that she intended as a joke, but was perceived by some people as a threat against her child. Soon, police were at her doorstep. The incident raises some tough questions about what role Internet users should play in policing each other’s behavior, and the special role of teachers in protecting the welfare of children.

I heard about the incident a few minutes after it had taken place from a friend on Twitter. He had mentioned that a situation was unfolding at the house of a woman who goes by the name of Thordora on Twitter. I wasn’t familiar with her, but I went to her Twitter account to see what happened. (Her account has now been locked down to the public, so unless you know her, you won’t find much information at the link anymore.) When I visited the page, though, I saw a series of tweets from someone who was clearly upset about something and angry at another Twitter user for apparently calling the cops on her.

Soon enough, I was able to piece together the series of events that had unfolded. First, more about Thordora. She’s a blogger who happens to be bipolar and the mother of a toddler, both facts that she mentioned prominently on her Twitter homepage. Looking at her tweets, you could tell she had a scathing sense of humor. One recent tweet of hers, though, had apparently just caused an uproar:

“If I smother my 3 year old, who will NOT GO TO F****** SLEEP, is it REALLY a crime?”

In the context of many of her other postings, it seemed like a joke. But the swearing, the use of ALL CAPS and the word “smother” really caught me off-guard. Was she joking? Probably, but honestly, I just didn’t know. Another Twitter user, a woman who blogs about her family and uses the name Feelslikehome, saw Thordora’s post and started talking about it. A conversation ensued among several people who were concerned that Thordora’s tweet was not a joke. Feelslikehome says she tried to contact Thordora directly but without any luck, so she contacted Twitter instead. Twitter, it appears, then alerted authorities. Police came to Thordora’s house late that night and demanded to see her kids. They were fast asleep in their rooms.

Thordora then posted an angry blog post in response to the incident. (Warning, there’s foul language on the post, so you might want avoid reading it if you’re in a classroom.) Thordora wrote:

Those of you who KNOW ME know the relationship I have with my daughters. You know the relationships you have with your children. Loving, frustrated, awed, annoyed, angry, blissful.

Tonight, as always, my evil mini-me did her “not going to sleep without one last hug” routine.

Tonight, as always, I yelled, threatened and cajoled her back into bed.

Tonight, as I’ve done in the past, as other parents have done in many ways, I asked if it was ok to smother her.

Which, if you know me, or anyone with my sense of black humor, is a joke born of frustration, annoyance, and yes, LOVE.

Tonight this woman (link removed because enough is enough), who I foolishly followed on Twitter, who likely doesn’t even know me, had someone in LA call the cops.
ON ME.

So far, more than 50 people have posted replies to her blog, and their opinions are all over the map. Some people back Thordora and were angry that a complete stranger couldn’t take a joke and had the gall to interfere with the situation. Others were supporters of Feelslikehome, saying that any threat against a child must be taken seriously, not unlike the way the TSA won’t tolerate any joke about terrorism or bombs while going through airport security.

The incident has gotten a lot of play on Twitter and on blogs that discuss online communities. One of my colleagues at NPR, Linton Weeks, wrote about the incident online. BJ Fogg, director of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, told him, “We are connecting two people largely through text. Text is an impoverished medium for communicating emotion, intent, real meaning…. We are connecting to a much wider range of people who don’t know us, as well as to those who live close to us geographically. There is a flattening of relationships.”

Perhaps the one comment that struck me the most came from a woman named Adrienne. She posted a reply to Thordora’s blog post in support of the police coming to her house:

Cry me a river, you were inconvenienced to open your door to the cops? Too bad. Idle threats are not always so idle. You should be happy nothing more has come of it. I am a mandated reporter as a school district employee, so if I had seen that tweet I too would have done the same thing. Better you to watch your mouth, and calm yourself. Then someone else to ignore the wellbeing of a child.

The fact that Adrienne works for a school district made me wonder: as more teachers use social media for professional and personal use, how far outside the classroom walls does their role as a guardian of children extend? There’s no doubt that if a teacher heard a perceived threat against one of their students - or any child, for that matter - in their community, they would likely report it. But how does that responsibility play out in online communities? Should teachers be expected to take an active role in responding to any and every possible threat against a child, even when there’s an extreme likelihood that the comment in question was a joke? It seems like the answer is yes, but I must admit - I don’t know what I would have done if I had seen Thordora’s tweet arrive in real time. Twitter is full of sarcasm and dark humor, and the way she phrased it as a question seems to accentuate that it was a joke. But is it worth the risk of doing nothing?

I just don’t know what I would have done. And I’m really troubled by that. -andy

Filed under : People, Safety, Social Networking

Responses

As a computer/technology teacher, and as a mother and grandmother-heck, as a citizen of the world, I feel that we have to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

My teaching hat may come off at 3pm but my sense of responsibility never does. I have seen adults in stores hit kids and I have reported it. I have had first hand experience with a neighbor and child abuse which I reported.

When I teach my classes about Internet use, I emphasize all the safety points that I can think of. I would be very surprised to find the kids at this age doing any of this behavior to each other. But note, once again, it is an ADULT doing this. Reference that horrible case where the neighbor pretended to be a teen and the girl ended up committing suicide.

I guess the real enemy is the adults who use the Internet to live out some part of their lives that doesn’t fit anywhere else. It’s a pity that kids have to be the victims.

Last year, I used Facebook as a means to connect with my students by setting up a group for my class. I could send out email blast that everyone would actually read, unlike their school emails, and interestingly every student had Facebook. So I figured, “meet them where they live.”

I was very clear about not wanting to see what they were up to. So not many of my students were facebook “friends,” and I strongly suggested that if they wanted to friend me that they put me on a limited profile, after all, that’s what I would be doing to them.

Eventually I started to become worried about one of my student friends because of their status updates. They were quite dark, and I worried that they might be contemplate harming themselves. My immediate reaction was to contact the student’s guidance councilor, but I worried about making a mountain out of a mohill and harming the trust I had built with the student. It’s something I’ve had to do before, and when safety is clearly an issue it’s an easy decision.

Status updates, however, were unknown territory. There wasn’t any smoking gun, no explicit threat of self harm, just a worry. In the end I approached the student and discovered it was just your run of the mill teenage venting, not a call for help. They liked to quote emo song lyrics I wasn’t familiar with, but it was an important learning experience for me about how undefined our roles are as we enter this new space. Andy, thanks for broaching the issue here. It’s worth a thoughtful discussion.

I’ll continue a thought I started on Facebook in response to Andy’s link. Andy says (not his opinion, but summarizing others’):

“…any threat against a child must be taken seriously, not unlike the way the TSA won’t tolerate any joke about terrorism or bombs while going through airport security.”

Is TSA effective? Many seem to think not (myself included).

I think David’s comment above is insightful; teachers are not, in general, trained on digital safety. Similarly, teachers are not trained on assessing risks to a child on the internet, or even on the appropriate ways to engage with children on the internet.

Consider:

1. Is Facebook universally evil? Many, if not most, teachers and parents certainly think so. My girlfriend’s sister just finished high school, and her parents are convinced that this is the case, despite my efforts to persuade otherwise.

2. Is it ok to send a private message to a teenager on Facebook? Or is this considered a private, out-of-school, inappropriate form of content, destined to land a teacher on tomorrow’s scandalous news headline?

3. Can you “friend” a student? I’m “friends” with some of the kids I’ve mentored in the past. As David points out above, there are a lot of nuances to online networking that have yet to be fully defined, let alone understood well enough to create policy on. Frequently, these nuances aren’t studied (or even understood) by people writing digital safety curricula.

In that light, I’m thinking its impossible to make teachers mandatory reporters of the internet.

@David: Kudos. Your comment suggests you’ve done some serious reflection on Facebook, and I wish more teachers would follow in those footsteps :)

@Linda: While I agree with you for the most part, I think there’s a key distinction here. It’s relatively easy to see a parent beat a child and determine that there is likely reportable abuse happening (you’ve seen it, after all). Online, this gets murkier, and actions and intentions are very hard to discern from text. Even in-person, counselors and others are trained on how to spot signs of abuse, because it can frequently be very non-obvious to the casual observer.

Online, in addition to actions and intentions being difficult (if not impossible) to discern from text, you’re also opening up that text to scrutiny from a very much wider audience.

This sounds like dangerous territory, to me. Too easy to organize the witch hunts from bands of the self-righteous, ironically helping to hide real abuse and risks as a result.

Dave.

Role of teachers policing the net? Pretty much none. As pointed out by another commenter above, this can very easily turn into a witch hunt. A teacher, of all people, should certainly be appreciative of that given what it takes to very easily accuse a teacher of something inappropriate and ruin his/her reputation. What the self-righteous person did above in reporting the incident clearly sounds like a bad example of someone who did not know what they were reading, but jumped the gun anyways. Having the cops come to your house because some busybody called on you is not “an inconvenience.” I would like to see if she would label it an inconvenience if it happened to her.

I was a public teacher once, so I was very familiar with the mandatory reporting thing. But online, and out of the school, that is a separate story. Personally, I leave school at school.

I am a Facebook user, have been for a while. As an educator (I am in college now), I use it as an outreach tool, but one is still be very careful of who one friends, as well as the image one conveys.

Overall, this looks as a situation that was poorly handled. But I am betting that mom will make sure not to utter anything else online someone out there may take the wrong way. In the end, it was just a joke. Something any frustrated parent may say, which does not mean they will actually harm the child. Any parent would know this. I knew it the minute I read about it (yes, I am a parent). So, maybe miss reporter should have seen it as well instead of causing an “inconvenience.”

Best, and keep on blogging.

Dave,
I agree that it’s a gray area but I still think I’d make some kind of move. In fact, I have. A witch hunt? Absolutely not. There are lots of ways to help or to keep an eye on possible issues. I don’t think I am an alarmist. But I never have been the type to ignore a cry for attention or help. And, I react accordingly.
Thanks for the thought provoking response, though. It is good food for thought.
Linda

Did you happen to see ABC’s “what would you do?” on tv a couple of nights ago? Maybe it’s time they did something similar for social networking sites, and then give us all some “expert” advice on what an appropriate response should be for those of us who want to do the right thing but aren’t exactly sure what that might be. There’s a whole new set of group dynamics online that we’re just beginning to become aware of.

Communities should have an innate obligation to protect children. It could have been my son’s babysitter communicating in that manner. I would want someone to report it and that person would never be alone with my son again. Social networking is only a tool. This tool doesn’t change how we respond as thinking adults or professionals when children are threatened.

The primary concern I have with the question “are teachers trained for digital safety” is, in fact, that it suggests that answer can be “yes”. In my own experience in several districts, however, such “trainings” are more often than not brought in by district admins who have no clear sense of what criteria would make a “good” or even “appropriate” training.

The result? Cops — or holier-than-thou do-gooders — teach a whole district of teachers to panic at the first sign of sarcasm. Meanwhile, I stand in back and silently scream, but can’t make a dent against the “paid expert.” Had teachers who had been “trained” under this premise seen the twitter in question, I daresay a swat team would have showed up at this woman’s door…and worse, the student who David references above would be in an institution right now, rather than having been approached by a sensitive teacher who cares about the kids (good work, David).

End message: I suggest that we be very concrete about what we mean by “trained teachers”, OR avoid begging such a question, until we can clearly define and have some consensus about what we think the appropriate training is, and where our obligation as mandated reporters and concerned digi-savvy citizens begins and ends.

Jim’s post, and then Josh’s, raise an important point. I have some experience in internet marketing (now I build websites for nonprofits), but as far as I know, no one is an expert on Facebook, including Facebook. It’s a parallel to the internet, where people are first class nodes instead of chunks of content, and relationships are the new hyperlink. The model is emerging, and it hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to map out marketing paradigms or even behavioral patterns well enough to be an “expert”. Or, if anything, we are the emerging experts…the users.

Compare this with self defense courses, which are based on decades of martial arts training models, crime statistics, and psychology, and you’ll see the problem; Facebook hasn’t been around long enough for anything to be “tried and tested” yet. We’re barely at the “tried” stage.

I have met several holier-than-thou do-gooders who believe that social networks are fine for adults, but evil for children, or just evil in general. A fearmongering media magnifies and thereby intensifies the problem.

I think it is possible to train teachers on social networks, just as it is possible to train teachers on how to use the internet (which was, and sometimes still is, seen as a similar evil).

A few decades ago, did you know that we didn’t let women use the telephone, because then parents wouldn’t know who they would be talking to, and they could be talking to anyone? Sound familiar? Fearmongering doesn’t appear to have changed in language much, just the topic of the day.

A place to start may be to find “experts” who actually use Facebook and other similar platforms, and are willing to champion them. They might be best positioned to describe the models and memes resident in those contexts.

Dave.

Schools are trapped in a Gordian knot with the onslaught of the Facebook age. The boundaries between home and school are so twisted that school administrators, parents, and students find themselves caught in the crosshairs. To untangle this knot, all three groups need to come together and communicate about fair use. The recent news of Katherine Evans and her lawsuit against Pembroke Pines Charter High School (New York Times, February 8, 2009) highlight the challenges of untying this knot. Suspended from school for creating a Facebook page aimed at venting frustration at the actions of her high school English teacher, the student, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has sounded the clarion call of first amendment violations. The school, on the other hand, crouches under the desk of its legal counsel. This problem will only grow worse, unless all parties can create an agreement for fair play at home and in school. Kids will not cease posting on Facebook and the faster schools and parents can grasp that reality, the healthier the lives of students will be.

The question centers on how to build a bridge for students, parents, and schools. The Common Sense Media schools program can serve as a starting point. Founded five years ago as a non-partisan organization committed to media safety for kids and families, CSM has recently launched its schools program, with over 1000 participating schools. Endorsed by President Obama, CSM has national reach and is one of the few organizations committed to wrestling online living to the ground for kids, families, and now schools. CSM offers practical resources and lesson ideas for educators and conducts workshops and presentations for schools. They even have a family media agreement, but have not yet crafted a more encompassing agreement to connect home and school.

School administrators struggle with transgressions after school hours and outside of school networks. While unhealthy online activity takes place in homes and on weekends, the after effects often ripple through schools and affect peer relationships on a daily basis. Schools can raise parental awareness through conversations and information sharing, but the trickier issue is whether to impose discipline on students for inappropriate and unsafe cyber actions outside of school. Now, with the Evans lawsuit looming, even more schools will cower at the prospect of disciplining student actions on Facebook and other social networking sites, for fear of reprisal.

Schools can put their heads in the sand and ignore the problem. They can draw a line in the sand, with zero tolerance rules written into school handbooks, or they can shift with the changing sands of social networking and seek solutions to incorporate social networking and utilize it as part of the educational program for students. We have reached the tipping point here and schools must address and embrace the prolific energy surrounding the Facebook age. President Obama knows this. He has retooled government’s approach to communication. Each week, he uploads his weekly address to YouTube, the White House web site invites viewer interaction and he even found a way to hold onto his BlackBerry. And, the President has enlisted a chief technology officer to rewire the government’s whole technology apparatus. As the recently released MacArthur Foundation study on digital youth stated: “they (kids) are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults […] to stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.”

It is time to unravel the knot of conflict between students and schools and disentangle the web of lawsuits that could easily overtake the better measure of capitalizing on the cooperation and communication that the Facebook age brings to educational settings.

As an education student, I am currently taking a class that deals with technology in education. I am VERY anti-students and teachers being friends on Facebook. I understand from other comments that some teachers find it useful in communicating class projects and announcements, but as a young person I am very skeptical to mix the teacher-student worlds here.

However, there are going to be teachers who interact with students on FB, and that means there need to be regulations and tips for how to deal with online situations safely. If people stand off and say teachers have no responsibility to what happens to students online, when there is an instance of bullying, or someone writes about their pending suicide in their status, the first person to be blamed will be the teacher.

I completely disagree with Angel, who says that she was able to leave school at school as a teacher. Unfortunately with the shift in classrooms relying more heavily on technology, and the amount of time students spend online, their time on the internet cannot be ignored by teachers.

Hey all -

I know of a new educational, safe web-browsing tool that you may want to take a loot at. The final product is currently in the works, but the site already has many easy to use and useful features that you may be interested in checking out. The site is Togetherville.com, and it offers a browser that allows parents (or teachers, in the classroom) to decide exactly which sites they want to allow their children (or students) to browse, in order to maximize the educational potential of the internet, while blocking the distractions.

Anyways, thought it could be an extremely helpful tool for your purposes. It may be worth taking a minute or two to check it out.

www.Togetherville.com

When you are working with children you have to be very careful with the web searching. I have a 9 year old and she says that no one is monitoring what she is searching on the net at school. Now i am not saying that the teacher is not watching but is she? As a teacher in training I would think that it is much safer to leave the web searching to be done at home so the parents can monitor it better. As far as the personal “twittering” and the use of Facebook at school should be outlawed. It should not be allowed. I think that this is the safest route when you are talking about kids and the internet. As a teacher and a mother I am against the use of these for my young children. I have a 9, 7, and 3 year old. They may play games and do homework using the internet but I am constantly checking behind them.

I do feel that teachers should be expected to take an active role in responding to threats against a child. The reason they are in this profession is for the children. Even if it is a joke, I don’t think it is the job of the educator to determine if it is a joke, it is the job of the child protective services. As a future educator I feel I would have done the same thing and turned it in. You can never be sure. Also, if she really didn’t want people to turn her in she should have kept it to herself maybe in a journal or something, not online for everyone to see.

I am curious what kinds of feelings were experienced by those people who would have been ready to call the police (in particular by Feelslikehome who triggered the police visit via Twitter). Most likely it was fear for most people (I doubt personally that it was love in most cases—e.g. love of children).

In the past I would try to deal with the emotion of fear by taking some kind of external action to try to attenuate the fear (for example doing what seems to be “the safe thing to do” either by social norms or by my own norms that I most likely inherited from social interaction, too).

In recent years I have been more ready to look inside and see if that fear was actually not some emotional addiction to fear, which was conveniently satisfied with the particular event that seems to have triggered it.

And in most cases I have come to the conclusion that “I” am really the one entertaining the fear, because I actually get some benefit from it, while pretending that the fear is caused by the particular situation.

My perspective now is that anything that happens in my life (and that I am aware of and actually notice) has some emotional reaction connected to it (e.g. frustration, fear, anger, sadness, etc.), and if I don’t want such events to happen anymore, the fastest way to that state of life (in which bad things no longer happen) is to actually choose to create permanent unconditional inner freedom from such emotional reactions.

And if the event still happens nevertheless, I am now much more likely to deal with it effectively and in such a way that everyone benefits and everyone is pleased. My calm peaceful mind always deals with life better than the fearful one, or the one that is emotionally reactive.

I agree with those who responded that as educators we should be there for all children so an incident like this should be reported. It is not our repsonisbility to evaluate a persons behavior or personality, but it is our responsibility to protect children. We will leave the rest up to the legal system.

I too am a grad student taking a class focusing on the integration of technology in education. I am also a teacher who has been teaching in a private elementary school for the past 15 years. This discussion has been interesting to read and thoughtprovoking.

In response to the twitter activity that got the ball rolling, I am in favor of the woman who contacted the authorities. While I understand the roll of sarcasm, I do not think it’s wrong to act in what you perceive to be the best interest of a child. If you’re wrong, then so be it. It wasn’t as if she called protective services. If I were witness to the same thing, I believe I would have acted in the same manner.

In response to a teacher’s relationship with students on facebook I have a differing opinion. I am friends with many of my past students who are now in middle school or beyond. I was their 3rd or 4th grade teacher. I typically do not talk with them other than to congratulate them on an accomplishment they may post. I do not update my status, but I don’t know if I would even if I weren’t friends with my past students. I do think it’s a different story for teachers in the middle school and especially high school arenas. The students who have asked me are more interested in letting me know what they’re up to or just establishing a connection with me again.

Finally, I do agree with the person who wrote that a teacher cannot just be a teacher at school and then take that hat off when the bell rings at the end of the day. If you are able to do that I question if you are a person with a job or a teacher with a calling. There are days when I wish I had a job where I could just leave it all at the office, but there are more days when I thank God that I can make a difference in the life of a child. I think it is my job to educate each of my students in more than academics. I want to help guide them to make wise choices in all areas of their lives, including technology. I agree with the one parent who expressed concern regarding what technology her child has access to at school. I think one has to be very careful and monitor students at all times. It is very easy to be exposed to something that you had no itent of discovering. I do think, however, that properly managed, technology is bringing many exciting developments to education. This course has opened my mind to ways that I can further extend my students’ learning beyond the walls of the school.

I think as a teacher or any adult it is our job to protect all children no matter who they are when there is a threat to that child’s life or a potential for that child to be hurt. I agree with the woman named Adrienne. I would have called the cops too. There are just some things you just don’t say. I always amazed at the twitter community.

I think as a teacher or any adult it is our job to protect all children no matter who they are when there is a threat to that child’s life or a potential for that child to be hurt. I agree with the woman named Adrienne. I would have called the cops too. There are just some things you just don’t say. I always amazed at the twitter community.

As responsible teachers, I know why we are asking about what our roles are in policing online commentary. I’d like to address another side of this constant, never-ending, narcissistic use of services such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. Yes, I am baffled as to why so many people feel the need to update the world about every single action or random thought that flickers across their minds—in real time—but the issue is larger and more pertinent to this discussion. These are public forums. One can not say/type things that they would only say to close friends to the public without expecting repercussions. I personally think the smothering joke is in very poor taste at best (even from someone who doesn’t have mental health issues) but I can have a dry, even dark sense of humor, too. I make sure, however, that that humor is used in the proper place and time. I use different language when I’m in different situations; when my audience is different. People online need to remember that they are being “overheard” by, perhaps, millions of people. Everyone has the responsibility to keep others, especially children, safe. If you want to make jokes that only “close friends” could understand—only tell them to close friends. Be glad that strangers would try to protect your children.

Hello,
I guess protecting children from any kind of danger or hazard is our duty. It is of no wonder that child abuse is mostly ignored but it shouldn’t be like that. I agree with Felisha.

I think that as a teacher we should always protect our children. I think that any adult should protect children. If I saw something posted that could possibly harm a child, I too would report it. To harm a child is not a joking matter. Sometimes I wonder why people have to share every single thought they may have with thousands of people.

Children are unaware of all the bad things in this world and it is our responsibility to protect them. I think back to when I was a kid and realize now how naive I was. It’s really just part of being a kid. Why should our kids have to worry about these things. They should be able to feel safe and protected not only by their parents but also by their teachers. Especially since they spend so much time with us in and out of the classroom. I think adults as a community need to protect the kids. Not just a parent, a teacher, a police officer. We all have to work together to keep kids safe today.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]