Can Schools “Follow Back” Students on Twitter and Instagram?

team follow back

I’ve been happily overseeing my school’s Twitter account over the past year or so. This past week, due to an intense Twitter battle with CW Jefferys CI, the account has had a sudden influx of student followers. One such follower tweeted an @reply, however, saying “Why don’t you follow me back?” My immediate thought was, “Well, I’ve been told it’s not a good idea.” But then I paused for a moment. Why wouldn’t I follow back? I mean, let’s face it. Many students on Twitter and Instagram love to see their numbers of followers climb higher and higher, and the ratio of followers to following is important to them, as well. Therefore, students are more likely to follow school accounts if they get a follow back. I acknowledge it’s all a bit shallow, but if it gets students’ eyeballs on important school-related tweets, pics and announcements, then to me it’s worth it. There are other potential benefits of following back students on social media:

  • It creates a greater sense of community and connectedness between students and the school
  • Students value being followed on social media because it validates their online persona

However, what are the potential issues around following back students on Twitter or Instagram using a school account?

There are plenty of social media guidelines floating around for staff in schools, such as those issued by the Ontario College of Teachers and the Peel District School Board. However, they focus mainly on appropriate online behaviour of individual teachers and the need for staff to separate their personal and professional social media accounts. Also, they feel that when teachers and students follow each other on social media, the tone of the online dialogue may decline from a professional to a casual level that can then be misinterpreted as inappropriate. Generally, I agree with their recommendations, but never do they mention anything for institutional accounts that represent schools as whole entities that have no private alter-ego to shield, nor an individual person with whom students feel they are speaking. Maybe because these accounts are the “property” (for the lack of a better term) of school boards, there should be different rules of engagement. After a bit of Googling, I found no recommendations from school districts for how school accounts should engage students in this regard. So, let’s look at three main possible issues of following back students using school social media accounts (note: to clarify, this post is about following back, rather than proactively following student accounts before they follow the school’s account – that would be weird).

1. Following back students on Twitter or Instagram lets you read their tweets, see their pictures, and send direct messages, all of which are inappropriate.

If a student’s account is public, anyone can see their tweets or pictures anyway, regardless of whether they follow them or not, so following back is inconsequential in this regard. In terms of direct messaging (DM), accounts on Twitter can send DMs to followers even if they don’t follow back. Therefore, school accounts already have the ability to send DMs to students that follow them (which schools and teachers should really avoid). By following back, however, students would then be able to start DM conversations with the school account. Personally, if students tried to DM the school, I would just redirect students to tweet their message instead, so that any communication remains transparent.

If students have their accounts set as private, I believe it would be inappropriate for the school to request to follow back those accounts. The student has shown that they only want a select few to see their content. I would respect that boundary.

Verdict: Stuff is public anyway, so following back doesn’t increase viewing or communication privileges on the school’s end.

2. If schools follow back students on Twitter or Instagram, their tweets/pictures are displayed on your home page, and so you’ll be more likely to view any inappropriate content and therefore must intervene more frequently. That can become a full-time job in and of itself.

As professionals in a position of trust and responsibility, there is an expectation that if teachers come across inappropriate behaviour from students outside of class hours, they should intervene, whether it happens on the street, at the mall, or online. Whenever I come across inappropriate online content posted by students, I let them know that I can see it, and then I suggest that they should think twice about posting those things, or consider changing their privacy settings. This is digital citizenship 101.

Would following back student accounts imply 24/7 monitoring of student online activity and an obligation to report everything? If you state that the school account is not monitored 24/7 in the description, then no, it doesn’t. Besides, school accounts don’t need to follow back students to see what they’re up to online if their accounts are public (However, by no means do I believe teachers and staff should have students’ online activities under surveillance; my point is that such abilities are not enhanced by following back student accounts that are already open to the public).

Verdict: If you state the account isn’t monitored all the time, then there’s no expectation of continuous surveillance of students’ online behaviour. 

3. Even if it’s a school account, it’s still a staff member who is in contact with students online. That can lead to problems.

Now that social media is ubiquitous amongst staff and students, and blended learning is firmly entrenched in schools everywhere, the Internet is clearly an extension of the classroom. The lines that divide school and non-school hours are completely blurred in cyberspace, if not removed altogether. Therefore, if we trust teachers to interact with students appropriately in schools, then we should extend that trust to teachers when speaking to students online. Policies and decisions shouldn’t be dictated by extreme cases of teacher misconduct or fear of being sued by someone. Before I post a reply to students’ comments online, I make sure to think, “What would the Director of Education think of my message? What would this student’s parents think of my message?” If we have reasonable, well-trained teachers running school accounts, then the risk of misconduct is greatly minimized. Let’s not be run by fear.

Verdict: Trust teachers to conduct online discourse as you would trust them in the classroom.

For me, I don’t see any problems with schools following back student accounts that are already public for everyone to see. Perhaps we as educators are still figuring out the culture behind social media and the behaviours that are acceptable. Maybe it’s the unfortunate term “follow” that makes it all sound a little creepy. In any case, I would like to validate my students’ online personalities, kind of like giving a cyber-high-five, but I’ll wait to see what my superiors think…

What do you think? Would it be appropriate for schools to follow back students? Are the benefits worth the potential issues?