Thursday, March 30, 2006

Social Networks and Privacy Issues

Today in class we discussed the issues presented in the articles my students read for their most recent batch of reaction papers. I assigned two separate topics, so half the students read about one issue, and half read about another. However, I wanted all of them to be aware of all the issues, so a class discussion seemed the best route.

I find it somewhat disconcerting that students don't always realize how available their information is when they put it on the web. This is only to be expected though, given that they are getting earlier and earlier exposure to the web. It becomes a natural part of life - something that you just don't question. But it needs to be questioned, and colleges need to do something to increase awareness of the issues surrounding the Internet and more specifically, social network sites.

For example, take Facebook. All but one of my students are on Facebook. I suspect the vast majority of students on campus are on it. And they Facebook constantly (including during class...). But are they aware of the following issues?
  1. Anyone with a campus email address can get access to Facebook. This includes faculty, staff, campus police, alumni, etc.

  2. Campus police (perhaps not on my campus but on others) have been known to use Facebook to catch students commiting various crimes - rioting, underage drinking, etc. For examples of this, read Think Before You Share (PDF) from The Chronicle of Higher Education about the rioting incident, and Facebook Face Off from Inside Higher Ed about several students bashing a professor.

  3. Employers may search social networks for information about potential candidates. They already Google them (see the article What a Tangled Web We Weave from the New York Daily News). This may not be as much of a problem with Facebook since you need a college email address, but anyone can sign up for other social networks like MySpace. One argument often raised is that what happens at college is part of a different world. People do things in college they probably won't do later in life. To me, that's true to a certain extent, but as one of my students pointed out, you can tell a lot about a person's character by his/her social network profile.

  4. Depending what information you include in your social network site, you are making it pretty easy on stalkers.

  5. Facebook actually has some pretty great privacy settings that could (should?) be used to hide information. Students should check those out! You can limit who sees your profile, who sees specific parts of your profile (just your cell phone number, IM screen name, etc), and whether faculty, staff, and/or alumni can see your profile. You can also block specific people or limit the parts of your profile that specific people are allowed to see.

These are all things I think students need to be made aware of. But how can we do it on a campus-wide basis? Maybe it's a topic for the First Year Seminar class that all new students have to go through. That seems the best option (perhaps also because I can't think of any other method to reach most of the students).

Just getting the conversation started among a few students makes a difference. I know at least one of my students said (of his own volition - i.e. without me suggesting or recommending it) that he would pass on the information to his friends. The grapevine is a good start, but is there a better way?

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