privacy, social media, and higher education

I have been following the tragic suicide of 18-year old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi.  It is heartbreaking.

The role of social networking in the suicide is hard to ignore.  The two students that secretly videotaped Clementi were charged with invasion of privacy.  They announced their secret videotaping of Clementi on twitter before Clementi posted his intent to commit suicide on Facebook.

This story is particular interesting to me as a professor.  I can imagine having these students in class.  There is a growing body of literature on how increased social networking usage basically makes people more narcissistic and rude.  There is a collective effect when everyone in your generation is so used to social networking tools and the “anything goes” culture on the Internet: it is hard for students to recognize when they’ve stepped over the line.  The behavior of the perpetrators in this story is very, very disappointing. Yet as someone who teaches many college students, I am not surprised that many otherwise good kids are not phased by their peers posting private details about college roommates.  And yeah, that bothers me a great deal.  College students have professors, and while we are not responsible for our students’ actions, I wonder how we should react to our changing culture to encourage responsible behavior in our students. I’m not sure that it would even make a difference.

I am pleasantly surprised that some of the actions taken by the perpetrators are in fact illegal. I would have guessed that the invasion of privacy was just bad manners (although the post to twitter sounds like it was just bad manners).  This makes me wonder about the privacy issues in the classroom.  I know very little about privacy laws that are directed at student behavior in the classroom.

Dr. Aurelie Thiele wrote a nice post about using smart pens in the classroom, where she wrote about announcing the legal implications of making sound recordings in a classroom setting.  However, I have never mentioned any sort of privacy concern to my students either in class or in a syllabus.  Perhaps I should rethink that, especially given the large amount of technology that students use in the classroom.  I do ask students to be courteous and respectful to the other students in class.  I’d like to think that asking students to be mindful about their behavior in class would help them to be mindful of their behavior out of class, but I’ll admit that notion is optimistic.

How do you address student behavior and privacy in the classroom?  Do you have any resources about privacy laws that professors should know about?

One response to “privacy, social media, and higher education

  • Paul Rubin

    As an old fogey, I am constantly amazed at both the inclination of many people to publish every detail of their personal lives online and the inclination of other people to actually read all that minutiae. I’ve also seen first hand, particularly on blog comments (but mercifully not on yours … at least so far), that a measure of anonymity can promote rude and outright offensive behavior. I’m not persuaded, though, that social networks (which are not anonymous) really promote rudeness more than contemporary culture in general does. As to your point about it being hard for students to recognize when they’ve stepped over the line in social network posts, I’m skeptical. The “Golden Rule” seems to me to be as straightforward to apply in online posts as anywhere else. If it is being followed less often these days, I don’t think the reason is technological, other than perhaps the extent to which the Internet has expanded the opportunity for uncivil behavior to find an often all too appreciative audience.

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