To Friend or Not to Friend? That is the Question.

To Friend or Not to Friend? That is the Question.

Kathryn Reilly

Residence Director, Northeastern University

Scene 1
A text message conversation between a close friend and myself:

K: One of my clients just friend requested me on Facebook.
Me: So? Are you going to accept them?
K: Idk. I find it weird that people from work want to know me on social media.
Me: Doesn’t seem that weird to me, but accept them if you’re comfortable with that, and don’t if you’re not. It’s up to you what personal and professional boundaries you want to keep.

Scene 2
An in-person conversation between an RA of mine and myself:

M: Wait, can we be Facebook friends?! Do you have an Instagram? What about Snapchat?
Me: Um…let’s talk about this some more.

Welcome to the overlapping worlds of social media and the professional sphere!

The above scenes are anecdotes of encounters I’ve had regarding social media with people close to me, both personally and professionally. The first scene is meant to be a snapshot of the fine line that can come from social media sharing—not everyone believes in it, wants to be a part of it, and most people in professional settings are conscientious about how much personal information they share. The second scene represents a conversation that regularly occurs between students and myself that I encounter in some capacity and “click” with. For one reason or another our “in-real-life” relationship goes well and the student asks (not always in person) to extend that into the sphere of social media. My “um…” response reflects that I find it important to be conscientious of what relationships one engages in on social media. The choice to “follow” or “friend” a student or colleague on social media is one that often has no simple answer. This two-part post will thus attempt to explore this question in greater depth for a professional in higher education, where the stakes are often higher and the teaching moments (for students and staff) are frequent.

Before beginning, though, I’d like to add both thanks and context. A few weeks ago I posted a survey on the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook group, and was answered with responses both in short and long form from over 60 professionals. Their commentary and the statistics that resulted have helped me to flesh out the framework and especially the “General Advice” section to come in part 2 . So, in short, thank you to all of those who were kind enough to share your opinion!

So, let’s dive in and explore some of the basic questions we should be asking ourselves when engaging on social media, and especially with students. In other words, questions like, why might it be a good idea to accept a friend or follow request from a student? What benefits does it provide? And how does it support one’s practice in higher education?

I’ll also briefly explore the other side of the coin. Why might I not want to follow or friend a student on social media? And how might it hinder my practice in the field of higher education? This, of course, is not an all-inclusive summation—but things I’ve noticed and that seem to be a common trend amongst my colleagues.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Far and away, the largest reason for supporting a relationship with students (and clients if your line of work leans that way) on social media proved to be that to do so allows you to meet them where they are. In other words, social media relationships open up the doors to sharing new sides of your personality—making yourself more approachable—and communicating with students in realms that they are comfortable in.

This even extends to advertising to students and making announcements. Often, students don’t read their email and connecting through social media is a more efficient and practical way to get information out there. For example, I once had a student tell me she only read her school email if she knew to expect an email from a professor; my mouth was practically agape as I explained to her that she would miss MANY important notices and opportunities by that approach. Still, there are many students who will use email, but will simply filter out or block messages from school administrators though, so social media’s “feed” feature provides a nice answer to the problems that the filtering or ignoring of email creates.

Furthermore, as students often stop using their email addresses after graduation, creating a social media relationship allows students and professionals to connect beyond the cap and gown. I have known several schools and organizations, for instance, which specifically reach out to alumni through social media platforms, such as Facebook groups and twitter hashtags. As an individual professional, though, seeing students occasionally post on their Facebook or Instagram (posts which might show up in your feed) often gives me an opportunity to see what alumni are up to, and reach out when I might be helpful to them – whether it’s through words of encouragement, or an additional networking opportunity or job posting they might be interested in. Having this extra avenue, therefore, can facilitate lifelong mentorship, leaderships, and a care and concern for students’ entire beings, not just simply when they are in your office or classroom during those four or so years.


When you share yourself on a social media account, you not only get to see what your students post, but they also get to see what you post. In other words, you’re not just opening yourself up to the potential benefit of being more approachable, but you’re also magnifying the lens of the fishbowl you are in. I’ll talk more about the pitfalls this can create later, but since students are also often in fishbowls as well, modeling the way to represent yourself ethically in both a personal and professional manner can be a great lesson for your students. It’s often hard to have a conversation with students about what they show on social media if you don’t have to make the same choices. Thus, if you can speak from personal experience, your words will often have more weight. What’s even more though, your demonstration of what they can see on your page can show them what your words mean.

Doors That Don’t Close

With student development in mind, educators will often do whatever it takes to help students, making lots of sacrifices and putting in extra hours at work. As a result, it’s often very difficult to maintain the ever-elusive “work-life-balance” that is so often sought after. Opening up your social media relationship to your students and colleagues is no exception to this extra sacrifice. Essentially, sharing your life through social media is opening up yet another door of your life, and frankly one that doesn’t close easily. There are options to put various privacy settings on your account to limit the size of the door, but ultimately it’s still a door that wasn’t there before. Students and colleagues will be able to see aspects of your life without directly asking you, and aspects of their life may come up on your news feed when you aren’t in work-mode and perhaps weren’t planning on working.

The lens of that fishbowl that you are in, and that your students are in, will become magnified. Even when you aren’t ready to be doing work, sometimes you will have to, because now you’ll see more aspects of your students’ lives. In the quest to be a good role model on social media, you’ll often come across students that aren’t quite as adept at balancing the professional and the personal on social media.

In my role in residence life, there have been numerous occasions where myself or a colleague has had to approach a student about a post that they have made on a social media account, that was either public or that was brought to my attention. In some instances, the conversation led to that student becoming involved in the conduct process. In all instances, the in-person relationship between the professional and the student has been affected, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

So What’s the Consensus?

Determining boundaries in our personal and professional lives is by no means a new challenge, but the dawning of social media in recent years has certainly added a layer to the conversation. And, not surprisingly, there are a wide variety of boundaries being utilized amongst higher-ed professionals when it comes to their social media accounts. When polled, 34.4% stated they share some social media accounts professionally and keep others personal, 25.4% keep only personal accounts, 25.4% blend their personal and professional accounts, and 13.4% have 2 accounts of the same platform (1 personal, 1 professional), and lastly, only 1.5% keep only professional accounts. Of those who do share their personal accounts, 92.4% are happy to share amongst their personal colleagues, 59.1% in professional networks, 50% with students, 10.6% with clients, and 6.1% of respondents do not share their personal accounts with any of these.

So what does this mixed bag tell us? First of all, that this is a conversation that a lot of us have varying opinions on, and that there probably isn’t one right answer. Second of all, social media and its impact upon our personal and professional relationships will continue to be something that we as individuals and as groups will need to think critically about for years to come. It’s here to stay and while our personal choice in regards to it is our own, it will continue to impact the work that we do in higher education, with and for our students. This means continuing to think carefully about how we share ourselves on social media and how we act as role models through our sharing decisions.

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.

Kathryn Reilly

Residence Director, Northeastern University