Internet Safety & Social Networking

(Advice given by Sealock House)

Social Networking Sites and Parent Councils / PTAs - Advice

Social Networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo among others, offer tremendous potential for Parent Councils / PTAs to communicate with parents at their school quickly and easily. However, the informal nature of these social networking sites – they are, after all, where you go to meet your friends – can lead to problems if they are not managed appropriately.

Parent Councils / PTAs want to present an appropriate, well organised image that is approachable, objective and takes account of various parental points of view without breaching the Parent Council’s / PTA’s legal obligations or bringing themselves or the school into disrepute.

Here are some issues to consider when setting up a social networking site for your Parent Council / PTA. Some issues relate particularly to Facebook but should also be considered when using any other site.

Security Issues

Facebook Page

Consider setting up a Facebook Page which is different from a Facebook Profile. A Profile normally represents an individual and has ‘friends’ while a Page is more suited to an organisation and has ‘fans’. A Page can also have multiple administrators e.g. all committee members who have their own personal Profiles which are kept separate from the Parent Council / PTA Page. You can find out more information about this using the Facebook Help facility.

There is no limit to the number of ‘fans’ you can have for your Facebook Page. Parents can become a ‘fan’ just by ‘liking’ your Page, however you do not have control over who ‘likes’ you. You may also attract ‘fans’ from anywhere in the world. You will have to do a bit of publicity to tell parents that your Page exists so they can ‘like’ you and become a ‘fan’.

A Page broadcasts information without the two way interaction you get with a Profile. An example of this is the NHS Page.

Other legal, privacy and interaction issues – see content and use section below – may still apply to Pages.

Facebook Profile

If setting up a Profile, set security and privacy settings to ‘only friends’. Friends of friends and other large networks open up your content to a large group of unknown people and may put parent friends’ privacy and that of their families at risk.

Consider only accepting ‘friend’ requests from parents with children at the school – not pupils. How will you know whether a ‘friend’ request has come from a parent with a child at your school or not?

Be aware that there is a minimum legal age for setting up a Profile on some sites but that younger children can get round that by not being entirely truthful! Facebook is restricted to young people over 13 years of age.

Will you accept ‘friend’ requests from parents from other schools / nurseries?

Discourage parents from adding family photos or photos of their children to the Parent Council / PTA Profile.

Be aware that ‘friends of friends’ may be able to see the Profile – see security issues above.

What about ‘chat’ or messages that come through the Profile? Will you have ‘opening hours’ when you can chat to ‘friends’ and discuss issues? Will you advise ‘friends’ that you will respond to any of their messages posted on your wall within a specified timescale?

General Security Issues

Be careful when adding games or apps to the Page or Profile to make sure they are relevant, appropriate and do not expose ‘friends’ or ‘fans’ to a risk of viruses.

What personal information about office bearers will you add to the Page or Profile? You may not want ‘friends’ or ‘fans’ to know where your office bearers live, for example.

Content and Use

Do not post content that is abusive, defamatory, derogatory, obscene (including swearing), racist, libellous, subject to copyright, is confidential or contravenes the Data Protection, Equality or any other Act. The Parent Council / PTA committee members may be held legally liable for any content posted.

Think carefully before posting any remark, even if it is intended as a joke, to make sure it cannot be misconstrued or otherwise cause offence to an individual or group.

Post only what you want the world to see – that may be other parents, staff, ‘friends of friends’ or ‘fans’ who use social networking and can see what you have written.

Do not discuss or criticise individual pupils or staff and be respectful at all times.

Check before posting any photographs that you have the relevant permission from individuals shown in the photograph.

Draw up a code of conduct and make it clear that ‘friends’ or ‘fans’ will be blocked if they don’t adhere to this.

How do you plan to moderate and possibly remove any unacceptable content from the site? How often will this be done and who will be responsible?

Before you post warnings about scams, online and real life threats, potential risks etc, check they are true. These messages may claim to come from official sources but are designed to cause alarm.

Alternatives

Is there another way that you can put Parent Council / PTA messages across to your members that may not require such a high level of administration e.g.

  • setting up an e-mail list so you can e-mail members with news items,
  • asking the school to set up a Parent Council / PTA page on the school website,
  • or asking your school if you can set up a Parent Council / PTA Glow Group which has some automatic moderation built in (e.g. Glow does not allow swearing)?

Which type of social networking is most suitable for your Parent Council / PTA? You may want to ‘tweet’ messages to your ‘followers’ instead and Twitter may be a more suitable medium? How about a ‘blog’ which is like an online diary?

Ultimately Parent Councils and PTAs are independent bodies, can decide for themselves and are liable for the use they wish to make of social networking sites. Hopefully this advice has highlighted some issues that you may wish to consider before deciding to use this technology.