Social Media Policies: Results of a Nationwide Study

April 14, 2017 Dr. Jim Cianca

A connected, digital world is no longer a vision for the future -- the digital future has arrived.  And the use of social media is the “lynchpin in this digital revolution” (McLeod & Lehmann, 2012).  This reality has placed us as educators at a crossroads.  To what extent should we embrace or resist the role social media has taken in the lives of our students?  

"Much myth and hyperbole surrounds social media, and rarely does one find a moderate opinion regarding social media and its role in schools” (Salerno, 2012).  Enthusiasts leap in with little discernment, while others are more fearful and seek to avoid all contact with social media.  Independent schools have been working hard in recent years to craft policies that reflect the reality that exists beyond the walls of the school, and this presents a dilemma for school policymakers.  Adopting social media use in an educational context requires a shift in thinking and presents new, and for many educators, unwelcome challenges in practice (Sheninger, 2014), requiring an adjustment in school policies and procedures, which very well may reflect an adjustment in philosophy.  Conversely, schools that declare themselves social-media-free zones are facing a battle that may not ultimately be winnable.

So, as you create, revise, or consider social media policies in your school, you are likely asking, “What are other schools doing?”  That was the question I had a few years ago as a team of us attempted to create the first-ever social media handbook in our school.  This question led me to embark on a nationwide study among accredited, independent schools.  The results of this study were recently published (Cianca, 2016), and include both expected and surprising results.  Here’s a sampling of some of the findings:

Do schools have (or need) a written social media policy?

The majority of schools (75%) have created social media policies, and nearly all (97%), whether they currently have a social media policy or not, believe a policy is necessary.  There is clearly broad consensus that a written social media policy is necessary, and if your school does not have one, there are many schools who have gone through this process who can assist you in your efforts.

Are schools banning or encouraging social media use?

The study evaluated the types of policies schools have instituted.  Policies types were broken into the following categories:

Supportive policy: a school policy which serves the primary purpose of supporting the use of social media in the school community, though it may include guidelines which impose limits for its use. 

Limited policy: a school policy which serves the primary purpose of restricting the use of social media in the school community, but allows for limited use nonetheless.  

Restrictive policy: a school policy which serves the primary purpose of restricting or eliminating the use of social media in the school community and attempts to restrict as much use of social media as possible. 

Given the negative press that social media use often generates, and given anecdotal evidence that our team had seen of schools banning social media, we were expecting a different result.  We were surprised to discover that most independent schools seek to incorporate social media into their program, and that there is only a small minority whose policies attempt to ban the use of social media on campus. 

Are schools allowing or restricting student-faculty interaction? 

Another surprising result related to perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of this issue: social media contact between faculty and students.  While it should be noted that all policies issue guidance on what is appropriate and what is not, fewer than a quarter of schools ban social media contact outright.  The remainder are evenly split between policies with specific prohibitions and others that operated under general guidelines.  Student-faculty social media interaction allowed in schools includes classroom/instructional use (e.g. online chat rooms), club/group communication (e.g. theater/team Twitter accounts), and professional networking (e.g. art teachers who post their professional work on Instagram).

Should students be allowed to access social media during the school day?

Another hot-button issue was researched as well -- that is whether students are allowed to access social media during the school day.  Schools are divided, with 44% completely banning social media use in school.  Nearly half allow usage but have specific restrictions, like no use during instructional time, or no use in academic buildings, or no use for certain grade levels.  Many of these schools permit social media use for educational purposes (like completing an assignment that required social media tools), but restrict casual use to free periods or in certain locations.  A minority of schools do not specify exactly how or when social media should be used, instead providing a framework and training in appropriate usage.  When conducting a statistical analysis of the association between variables, it was confirmed that social media policies do vary based on the age of the child.  Many schools had policies that were more restrictive for younger grade levels while allowing older students the freedom to employ more general guidelines in their use, with some encouraging student leaders to use social media as a tool for school communication, in part to model proper usage among their peers.   

Why did you create your policy?  And why does it look the way it does?

This study set out to discover both what policies schools had in place, and why they created the policies they did.  Were they facing a crisis and a policy was the response, were they proactive in their approach, or was it a combination of factors?  And why did some schools end up with restrictive policies, while others were supportive?  A statistical analysis revealed some interesting results:

Age doesn’t matter: There was no association between the age of the senior administrator and the type of policy.  Anecdotally, we had always heard that older faculty and administrators were more restrictive of social media use.  However, the data does not support this assumption.  The oldest headmasters, over 60 years old, were no more likely to have restrictive policies than their younger counterparts, and in fact, the youngest age group, 30-39 years old, were more likely to have a restrictive policy than all the other age groups.  This challenges the stereotype of the older administrators being fuddy-duds who ban new-fangled technology because they don’t understand it.

Age does matter:  When it comes to the students, the age of the student body was a determining factor in whether schools had policies and what type of policies they had.  This likely reflects the ability that schools have to create age-appropriate guidance as well as a practical reflection of what issues need the most attention, as social media use is more prevalent in the upper level grades. 

Situation doesn’t matter: Those who created their policies as a result of a crisis were almost as likely to have a supportive policy as those who were proactive in their process.  This suggests that schools are not responding in a knee-jerk fashion to difficulties, but are being thoughtful despite challenges.

Further Information

Social media use is not something we can ignore; it’s integrated into the lives of our students, and we are faced with the necessity of navigating this phenomenon wisely.  For a comprehensive look at the entire study and its findings, go to https://tinyurl.com/socialmediafindings2016  and to view a Prezi with graphs and charts illustrating the findings, go to: http://tinyurl.com/socialmediastudy2016  

References

Cianca, J. (2016). The presence and origins of social media policies in accredited Christian schools: A summary of results. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/27916214/The_Presence_and_Origins_of_Social_Media_Policies_in_Accredited_Christian_Schools_A_Summary_of_Results

McLeod, S. & Lehmann, C. (2012).  What school leaders need to know about digital technologies and social media. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sheninger, E. (2014). Digital leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Salerno, M. (2012, March 4). Worthy of our attention! The Christian School Journal. Retrieved from http://christianschooljournal.com/?p=1005#more-1005

About the Author

Dr. Jim Cianca

Dr. Jim Cianca has been involved in the world of high-quality private education in many roles, including as an academic administrator, director of marketing & communications, an academic department chair, faculty member, and parent. He recently conducted a nationwide, empirical study of social media policies in K-12 schools. He has been involved in educational leadership and marketing and communications efforts, both as a business leader and as an educator since 1998. To learn more visit: http://www.edcomassociates.com/

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