With my great colleagues Conrad Borchers, Macy Burchfield, Sondra Stegenga, Daniel Anderson, and Christian Fischer, I recently wrote a brief report that was published in the AERA journal Educational Researcher on posts about students on the social media platform Facebook. The article is entitled Posts About Students on Facebook: A Data Ethics Perspective. The abstract highlights some of the key findings:
Public schools and districts use social media to share announcements and communicate with parents and the community, but alongside such uses run risks to students’ privacy. Using a novel data set of 18 million posts on Facebook by schools and school districts in the United States, we sought to establish how frequently photos of students were shared. Through sequential mixed-methods, we estimated that around 4.9 million posts included identifiable images of students and that approximately 726,000 of these posts also included students’ first and last names and their approximate location. We discuss these findings’ implications from a data ethics perspective.
The published article is available here. A post-print (the accepted version of the article) is available here.
Notably, these findings are generated from data through the end of 2020; the estimates would be far higher with data for 2021 and this portion of 2022. We plan to expand on this analysis by examining activity on other social media platforms, with a more comprehensive search strategy for identifying schools’ and districts’ public social media pages, and with data from the last two years.
Without the last two years of data, we think these findings are still noteworthy. Together, the posts of schools and districts may have inadvertently led to the largest publicly accessible collection of student photos with names for students in the United States—and possibly in the world. The risks are many but diffuse; it is not immediately clear how a range of actors (government agencies, businesses, and others with nefarious intent) could use these photos with names. Therefore, we suggest some caution; one way to drastically reduce the potential compromises to students’ privacy is for these pages to be private by default (all that we examined were public). Schools and districts can also refrain from posting students’ first and last names, especially with accompanying photos of students. We also think the media release form practice and policy can be revisited to better inform and allow parents to indicate their preferences regarding sharing on social media.
This work builds on prior work, especially the work that undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Macy Burchfield led and presented at the 2021 Educational Data Mining conference. Macy deserves a lot of credit for this work: kudos Macy. Macy is now teaching full-time as a mathematics teacher but we are actively working to expand on this and closely-related work, especially on the media release policy front.
AERA shared an embargoed copy of the study with several reporters, and some coverage of the Educational Researcher article is available on EdWeek and K-12 Dive. A press release from AERA with a slightly goofy video that I recorded is here.