Teaching and Tech: How can schools manage the use and misuse of social media?
It is very likely that a high percentage of your teachers and pupils will have social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok. Terms like ‘trolling’ and ‘cyberbullying’ have entered everyday conversation and articles about online harassment, often within school settings, have become a media staple.
What are the risks?
The misuse of social media can have serious consequences for a school’s reputation, irrespective of whether it occurred in the school grounds or not. It is not just negative comments about a school that can be damaging. Teachers posting inappropriate content about other teachers, parents or even students can also have an adverse impact in both the workplace and the classroom. School leaders must also be alive to potential safeguarding issues and teachers’ standards that may be infringed from the use of social media by staff.
Cyberbullying has become a very real problem for many school age children, especially in secondary schools. The Office for National Statistics reports that one in five children aged 10 to 15 in England and Wales experienced online bullying in the year ending March 2020, with many not reporting it. Teachers can also fall victim to online abuse, for example those targeted in the recent TikTok videos.
How to manage the day to day use of social media?
The main method of managing the use of social media by teachers and other school employees is to ensure you have an effective social media policy in place, setting out the limits of acceptable social media use. This allows employers to minimise any risk associated with an employee’s use of social media.
It’s important to ensure that the policy does not have the effect of silencing employees and that the boundary between work-related and personal social media use is not crossed. Employers must be careful to avoid infringing on an employee’s private life or restricting their freedom of expression, which are protected under Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. On the other hand, the policy should aim to protect other employees against bullying via social media as well as ensure effective reputational protections and necessary child safeguarding boundaries are in place.
The main method of managing the use of social media by teachers and other school employees is to ensure you have an effective social media policy in place, setting out the limits of acceptable social media use.
The policy should make clear the consequences of any breach, such as disciplinary procedures. Normal disciplinary processes should be followed, and a fair process adopted throughout, which takes into account the seriousness of that breach. It’s also important to ensure that the policy is enforceable by making it widely available to employees and that it is regularly kept up to date.
For serious reputational damage arising as a result of an employee’s use of social media, schools may also consider pursuing an action for defamation or malicious falsehood against the employee, provided the conditions have been met.
How to protect your schools and staff from online abuse
Schools must be prepared to deal with matters quickly and prevent escalation. Designating a specific employee to monitor social media platforms for any posts referring to the school, staff or pupils is a useful tool to spot any malicious posts promptly. Monitoring is made easier using online "alert” features.
Take care not to respond in haste if an issue is discovered. Often, a response from the school will simply add fuel to the fire, and matters may peter out if a reaction is not forthcoming. Schools may wish to use a PR consultant to advise on any communications to avoid inflaming the position unnecessarily.
If the situation develops, some action will be needed to try and prevent further harm. Defamation is a difficult and expensive legal remedy and often fails because of the need to prove "serious harm.” Litigation can also turn a difficult situation toxic, so a softer approach in dealing with social media platforms is preferable.
Online platforms must provide complaints procedures, however many platforms are US-based companies and therefore any complaints will be viewed in light of American freedom of speech principles, which tend to be wider than those in the UK. As such, we recommend that the strong focus of any complaint should be the impact of the action(s) being complained of, such as the distress caused to staff due to the spread of rumours.
Protecting pupils from cyberbullying
Providing appropriate training on online safety is essential so that all staff working in schools have the tools to prevent and respond to instances of cyberbullying.
Schools should also consider incorporating the teaching of skills to help equip students with what they need to manage or prevent cyberbullying. Schools should have a comprehensive approach that involves staff, pupils and their parents, supported by robust policies for technology and clear procedures to follow if cyberbullying occurs.
Stone King is a CST Platinum Partner.