To friend or not to friend: Buddying up with students on social media is up to you

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To friend or not to friend your students?

The answer, says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, is that it’s your call.

In high school, where students are under the age of 18, it’s generally accepted that teachers should not “friend” students on Facebook or any other social media site.  However, in college, where most are of legal age, it comes down to preference.

Some professors are concerned that accepting a “friend” invitation could be perceived as favoritism. Others decide to wait to friend a student until after he or she is graduated to avoid any appearance of favoritism.  Still, other professors send their students to LinkedIn, which is used more as a site for professional contacts.

“It really gets into what it is to be a ‘friend,’ ” LoMonte said. “Today it goes from a high degree of affection all the way to, ‘You’re a person I keep up with.’  Maybe it’s harmless. … It’s very much a moving target as we decide what it means to be someone’s friend.”

LoMonte advised that before you decide, make sure you are familiar with your institution’s policies regarding social media. Colleges are beginning to adopt codes for employees, and some might restrict contact on social media.

Matt Cantore, co-adviser to the Hudsonian student newspaper at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., came up with a novel idea.  If students send a request, he can send them to a “fan” page he created specifically for students. With a fan page, students can view content and make comments without asking to be a friend.  The advantage is that a fan page has limited access.

While it might sound presumptuous to ask students to become fans,  the word “fan”  is about as murky as the word “friend” in the world of Facebook terminology. In other words, it does not necessarily have the same meaning as the one found in the dictionary. Similarly, “fan” pages are created for a wide variety of reasons, and many have nothing to do with seeking popularity.

For Cantore, a fan page is just an easy way to communicate with students in real time without getting into the issue of giving selective access. As an instructor, Cantore uses the page, for instance, to answer student questions in real time. An advantage is that since all posts go on the Facebook “wall” or newsfeed, the whole class benefits. However, a note of caution: fan pages are open to the public.

“It sounds funny, but … as a professor and an adviser, it’s a reasonable thing to do,” Cantore said.