College students across the nation are chronicling their lives on Facebook and other social networks such as MySpace with photos, videos, instantaneous status updates and blog entries that highlight their thoughts, opinions, interests and dislikes.
Facebook, one of the largest social networking sites in the country with 175 million users, connects “friends” around the world and allows them to digitally share their lives. In fact, the site is so popular many faculty members and university administrators have joined its ranks. And, while the underlining purpose of the social network may be to connect and share, some college students may be disclosing too much in the eyes of academic leadership.
In February, Tony Harris, a student attending Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., was expelled for one year after allegedly posting a lewd comment about his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.
After the 2008 presidential election, University of Texas lineman Buck Burnette was kicked off the nationally ranked Longhorn football team after updating his Facebook profile status with the following comment: “All the hunters gather up, we have a (expletive) in the White House.” And in 2006, John Brown University administrators ousted student Michael Guinn when photos of Guinn dressed in drag surfaced on Facebook. The private, Christian, liberal arts college located in Arkansas accused Guinn of violating campus conduct, which mandates that behavior must “affirm and honor Scripture.”
Dr. Ian Bogost, an associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is not alarmed by these incidents, which he labels as “rare” when considering the millions of students who subscribe to the social networking service.
Students, by in large, are knowledgeable about the consequences inappropriate photos, videos or comments posted to the social networking site can have on their collegiate careers and beyond, Bogost says.
Bogost does not use Facebook as habitually as his students, but he is a member of the community. As a professor of media studies, Bogost is often engaged in conversations with his students about the pitfalls of digital media and online communication.
“My students are very aware of who can see what they are posting. There are things that I have seen that I would rather have not seen,” says Bogost. “And there are things, I suspect, they might have wished they had not so openly discussed or displayed. But every generation has their means of being young and foolish.”
Omar Torres, a freshman at the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities, has 309 Facebook friends, mostly fellow students and family. Torres updates his profile regularly — changing his status report, posting a brief broadcast and uploading photos — but remains careful about what he posts to the site.
“I have seen other students post photos of them drinking in bars while underage,” says Torres, insisting that he would never post information that might lead to expulsion.
Dr. BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and the co-editor of the soon-to-bepublished book The Psychology of Facebook, does not mentor his students on proper Facebook etiquette. “Stanford students are pretty Facebook savvy,” Fogg insists. “They know how things work. And they are aware of what others can see on their profiles.”
Facebook did not create a new layer of responsibility for students, says Fogg. Prior to Facebook, inappropriate information or compromising photos could be leaked in e-mails or blogs. In the future, says Fogg, institutions will need to develop social networking policies that outline for students what is appropriate and what is not.
Stanford’s code of conduct, known as the Fundamental Standard, extends to the digital realm. It mandates that students maintain respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others.
In 2006, Ithaca College created a Facebook task force to examine how the college could maximize its own use of this burgeoning technology and educate its students on the pitfalls of social networks. “We were charged to look at policy, education and opportunity,” says Doreen Hettich-Atkins, coordinator for special services and programs at Ithaca College. In terms of the institution’s policies governing negative or violent behavior online or otherwise, nothing changed. “We found that our existing policies seem to do what we needed them to do. The regulations were written to incorporate things that happened electronically.”
To equip students with pertinent information on safe social networking, the task force also created a Web site dedicated to digital citizenship. Digital citizenship encourages students to behave responsibly, respecting the rights of others on their computers, cell phones and other digital communication tools, Hettich- Atkins says.
“A few years ago, [Facebook] was really a romper room for college students. It’s only in the last few years that it has become a general community. If you look closely, a lot of students have made the adjustment naturally. They realize that their moms and future employers are on the site,” Bogost says.
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