In my first post, To Friend or Not to Friend? That is the Question, I reviewed some of the benefits and cautions to engaging—passively or actively—in a social media relationship with one’s students and/or clients.
As follow-up, I’d like to offer some recommendations for how to discern one’s individual approach to engaging in a social media relationship with students. I don’t believe there will ever be an easy answer for defining one’s personal and professional relationships on social media, but hopefully these standards might be useful guides to one’s decision-making. Again, I’d like to thank both my student affairs friends and my own students and experiences for this compilation. Just remember, one’s take on social media is really something that ultimately can only be answered by each individual person.
Best General Advice & Approach to Social Media Relationships
Share What You Are Comfortable
You want to be a good role model for your students, so you should feel comfortable with what you post, and should always be able to explain why you’ve posted it.
If you post something with a particular perspective or political affiliation, provide the context for it. Posting such things might make students feel uncomfortable and could negatively impact an in-person relationship. Part of your role includes creating a comfortable space for your students, which sometimes means suspending your voice long enough for them to find theirs. (Sometimes, though, it also means speaking up loud enough so that they are encouraged to do the same; it’s a fine line.)
Never post anything that you would worry about someone seeing—not just now, but five years ago, and five or ten years from now. Make sure the context is clear in all of your posts.
Plan What and How Much You Are Willing to Share and See, and Set Your Privacy Settings Accordingly
Once that door is open, it’s hard to close so know how big of a door you want it to be or how wide you want it opened. There are great privacy settings on Facebook and Instagram, as well as other platforms, that let you limit the amount of content you see of students’ posts as well as what they can see of yours. You can even place students in “limited profile” groups when you accept friend requests, and you can preview what your profile might look like to them.
Explain your rationale to students and colleagues about accepting or denying friend requests. If I decide to share my social media accounts with students, I usually also note to them that I can see what they post and I expect them to represent themselves well, and we can have a larger conversation about what that means if we need to. If I choose not to share my accounts, I might note that I want to keep some separation between personal and professional space or that I want to give them their own (digital) space that isn’t subject to my view. I might remind them though that we can share that part of our relationship after a certain time (such as graduation, or when they no longer work for me, etc.). Sometimes I might add, if we see everything going on in each others’ lives on social media, what will be left for us to ask each other in person? Students often just want an affirmation that you have a meaningful relationship with them or to know that you are “a normal person too,” so you’ll want to have an answer for why you are or are not willing to share that part of your life with them. It helps them to feel affirmed, while still understanding that you are intentional about your professional and personal relationships, and that they should be too.
Pay Attention to Relationships of Power
When you begin accepting friend requests (especially if it’s before students graduate), remind your students that you can see what they post and be upfront with them about the relationship where appropriate. This is especially important if you hold authoritative power in the relationship. If you are a Residence Director in charge of conduct, like myself for instance, any posts that exhibit violations of policy might be something that you would have to have a conversation about if they are brought to your attention. Further, if you do share that social relationship with them, you and your students should come to an explicit agreement about personal boundaries. As they share a personal part of their life with you, you may promise to not overly intrude upon their personal space, but once they open that door it may sometimes be unavoidable depending on the situation.
Remember that your boss and other organizations can see what you post. If you use your personal account professionally, remember to make clear when you are posting personal opinions and ideas, and when you are posting in a professional capacity.
Let your students and supervisees have their space: only “friend” request or request to follow them if you know you have a comfortable relationship. Perhaps they have already alluded that they are happy to share that part of their life with you. Otherwise, let them choose whether or not to request to follow you. Carry this same approach for your supervisees. How would you feel if your boss friended you? You might be worried that they were trying to take up more time in your life or that they wanted to invade your privacy. Students may feel this same way if there is no precedent for the relationship.
If You Want to Keep Your Relationship Professional, Keep It Professional
Consider maintaining separate accounts. This is a lot of work, but for some people it’s worth it. You can have more than one Facebook Account, more than one Twitter, more than one Instagram, etc. It’s just a lot of switching back and forth. But if you want that separation and yet still need to have a social media account for professional and personal reasons, then the effort might be worth it.
If you don’t want to blend your personal and professional life, but don’t want to keep separate accounts, then by all means, keep only one or keep none. It’s entirely up to you and you can still be a fantastic professional in higher education without opening up that door. Where a door is closed, a window is often open, as the old adage says. There are other great ways for you to connect with your students and you are best suited to decide how to show your care for them.
Want to stay on social media for the professional networking and connections it provides, especially with alumni? Consider a LinkedIn account. It provides a great way to stay connected with students and it’s specifically a professional network, so you don’t have to worry as much about the overlap between personal and professional. As a general rule, people are often much more comfortable making a “connection” on LinkedIn without personally knowing an individual well, so this is a much more convenient platform for building a professional relationship.
In summation, social media is one component of a technological revolution that has forever changed the way we act as people, professionals, and educators. There are multiple avenues one might take when deciding one’s engagement with social media, and each choice will color the type of relationship you have with your students, your colleagues, and your work in general. Choose the colors you want painted on your canvas carefully, but don’t be afraid to try a new paintbrush every once in a while. You simply want to make sure it fits your stroke and style. Every painting—every relationship—is unique and social media is just one more tool to help you create something full and life-giving.
About the Author: Kathryn Reilly is originally from Albany, NY. Kathryn's professional travels have landed her in Baltimore, MD as a Teaching Assistant for Algebra I at Cristo Rey Jesuit (2011-12), UMass Boston as an English 101 Instructor (MA 2014), Fairfield University in CT as an Area Coordinator of Residence Life (2014-2015) and now in Boston as a Residence Director at Northeastern University. She holds strong interests in educational leadership, advising and mentorship, and is committed to social justice and service in the field of education. Kathryn's favorite pastimes include cooking, solving any kind of puzzle, and doodling in the parks and diners of Boston. Her instagram handle is @kathrynreilly89.