Expelling students for being on Facebook

[This post was originally published in Forbes on 17 May 2012]

I’d like to say that this news story surprised me but, at some level, it didn’t. The ignorance of educators about Facebook is extraordinary. What’s the story? First, Facebook, to comply with US law, says that under 13 year olds cannot use it. A Queensland high school, Harlaxton, has used this as a shield to first issue a warning:

As most parents would be aware, your children must be 13 to be able to join Facebook. I am aware that there are many parents out there making their children adhere to this legality. We applaud you for holding strong in what example you are setting. We are also extremely pleased to know that many parents of students over the age of 13 are ensuring they are one of their child’s Facebook friends. Well done you are acting protectively and supervising from the sidelines. Many of our students lie about their age – that is, they are making a false declaration. There is a reason why the legal age for Facebook in Australia is 13. There is an assumption that by that age children will have been taught (and understand) the implications of using social media. It is anticipated that the child will have gained a strong moral purpose and be able to differentiate between what is socially acceptable and lawful and what could be considered libellous and unlawful. We have spent the last five years teaching our students about respect, relationships and resilience. It may seem insignificant to lie about your age to gain access to a social media site but where does it stop? Will they then think it is okay to lie about their age to gain a licence? Parents, you are your child’s first teachers. What do you want them to learn? How do you want them live their lives? Is your example a socially acceptable example?

First of all, the notion that the law is about children understand morals is completely false. Instead, the under-13 law makes it difficult (but not impossible) for websites and companies to collect data regarding children. Companies like Disney operate within its constraints. Facebook, to date, has decided to not make changes to accommodate under-13s but it does not aggressively do anything about them either. The point is not that interacting on Facebook is harmful to children the way drinking alcohol may be. Instead, its intention at least is to protect children’s privacy from companies.

Second, Facebook is complying with a US law. I do not believe there is an Australian equivalent to this law (if an expert knows please tell us). So it is unclear whether children are acting illegally. In any case, it would be Facebook not children or their parents that would face the legal issue here.

Finally, the entire statement is a presumption that children are engaging in lying without parental permission. Research has demonstrated that not only are there millions of children on Facebook but 55% of parents know this and the vast majority of them actually helped their children sign up. So, in effect, the principal is extending her reach into the home.

That is what makes the next message from the principal extraordinary. She followed up with a threat:

It has come to our attention that some Harlaxton students, under the age of 13, have a Facebook account. Facebook requires its users to be at least 13 years old before they can create an account. Providing false information to create an account is a violation of Facebook’s ‘Statement of Rights and responsibilities’.

It is Harlaxton State School policy and expectation that parents and their sons/ daughters would uphold the State and Commonwealth laws, as well as the guidelines set by social networking sites, with regard to their child’s use of such sites. Therefore, no student of Harlaxton who is under the age of 13 is to have a Facebook account, as per the Facebook terms and conditions and guidelines. In addition, parents should understand that a student who contravenes the law or rule in a digital scenario may need to meet with the Principal to discuss this issue and their continued enrolment at Harlaxton.

In the letter they also asked parents to search and report underaged children to Facebook. Basically, this was saying that Harlaxton would consider expelling students who simply had a Facebook account. This was apparently a child safety issue. In other words, if parents were not, by the school’s standards, keeping their child safe, the child could be removed from school. And if you look at this carefully, the expulsion could be simply because guidelines of social networking sites had not been adhered to.

The rationale behind this, it shouldn’t surprise you, was the school’s attempt to control bullying. But rather than hit the bullies and work out who they were, the school wanted to punish every child. And not for behaviour within school grounds but for behaviour at home and possibly sanctioned by parents.

I have written before that there is a good reason for the decision as to whether a child joins a social network to lie with parents and not be banned by the government and certainly not enforced by a school. And what is more, the directive from the Principal, Leonie Hultgren, surely masks a double standard. I wonder are there any Jewish children at her school whose parents have given them a sip of wine in clear violation of Queensland laws? Has any teacher at the school received a speeding ticket? Again, what sort of example would it be to children to know that a teacher had broken the law in a road safety matter. Surely not. Instead, this is one school’s attempt to ‘get out of management free’ and not have to deal with real issues of bullying that all schools have to contend with. And even after all that, what happens when the children turn 13? What’s the school going to do about all this then?