Friends and Followers

How many of you talk to strangers online? No hands will go up in the classroom.

How many of you will go home after school and play your favourite game online with some other people around the world? Watch many hands go up.

The meaning of ‘friends’ has changed massively thanks to the terminology used on various social networks, games etc. and it can be confusing for children. “Don’t talk to strangers’ is normally used as a risk-mitigating message about some of the more concerning behaviours we see online, but we have to be really careful with the words we’re using. Children know the answers you will expect to hear.

On a few occasions in the past after visiting a school (usually primary school in this case), a child has found me on one of my many social media accounts and tried to follow me. I have various online accounts, particularly social media; some I use for professional reasons and some I use for personal reasons such as family, hobbies etc. On each occasion (less than a handful and always on Instagram for some reason) I have blocked the person and reported the matter back to the school in order to have a chat with the child and their parents; but this behaviour is concerning for a number of reasons, and it isn’t always an easy one to tackle.

On an equal note I have received a few emails from schools where children are actively seeking out members of staff and trying to follow them on social media to the point where some children have been following people with the same surname in the hope that they find the correct person. This is problematic for professionals; for reasons which I hope are obvious we have strict conduct polices that forbid following/friending children (of any school age), unless for very specific and approved professional reasons.

We can’t always blame the children for this, in their eyes they aren’t doing anything wrong (even though they may have been told). As professionals we have a trusting relationship with children, but in their young eyes children may see that as a ‘friendship’ and they may want to connect outside of school.

Additionally, some staff may be real friends with parents whose children play together or are even family members.  It just goes to show how complex this is, particularly when talking to younger children and we have to be very careful about the guidance we give them and the words we use; context is hugely important. Information like this can never be given to children as a simple rule, but must be part of a conversation, allowing children to ask questions so that it is clear to them, and this needs to be done in school and at home.

It might be worth considering, if you are going to have this conversation with children in school, let the parents know so that they can have a similar conversation at home on the same day. Share with parents the topic you will talk about, the key points of the conversation and any advice that has been given to the children in order that this can be replicated at home.

For school staff, common practice within policies are recommendations such as keeping profiles to private. Yet that advice is unrealistic; we are professionals but we have a right to our personal lives too. For example I have an Instagram account that I use as part of one of my hobbies, which is drawing. The account isn’t private; I want to share with others, be found by others and receive advice and inspiration back from others; social media is about being social and not everything has to be private. However you should refer to your staff handbook/code of conduct and ensure you are familiar with expectations. Broadly speaking you should never follow/friend students or knowingly allow students to follow you (but this isn’t always possible). Use the opportunity of a staff meeting to discuss examples and the procedures you would follow in school. For example my recommendation would be that if a child has tried to follow you, ensure the school is aware and have a sit-down conversation with that child and just have a chat regarding why they shouldn’t be trying to follow you, and why you can’t follow back. Ensure this is followed up with the parents and explain the conversation you have had along with some advice.

For parents, remember that all social media (and many web services) have age restrictions for a variety of reasons. Although the default age is 13 for many, there are others such as 16, 17, 18. There are others such as Go Bubble which is specifically designed for younger children (3+). Periodically check through their accounts, but do it with them so that you can explain why you are doing it and have a conversation if you find someone not familiar to you.

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