A practical guide for developing a social media policy

Charles Sweeney

Charles took a first class honours in Computing Science from Glasgow University in 1985.  His initial career was spent in software development and consultancy with Burroughs Machines, The Turing Institute and Unisys. Charles has worked with a number of successfulhigh-growth SMEs across a variety of sectors including medical devices, animal health and software development.  He has been CEO of Web filtering and security specialists Bloxx since 2012.

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During my professional experiences over the last year, cyberbullying, inappropriate behaviour, access to unsuitable content, privacy and productivity are key concerns of IT executives working in education. But despite the risks at stake, a quarter of education establishments permitting access to social media admit their acceptable use policy does not address the use of Twitter, Facebook or other mainstream social media platforms.

It is imperative that educational organisations set comprehensive guidelines for online behaviour so students and staff understand what is expected and recognise boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. Knowing where to start on improving existing policies – or even creating new ones – can be difficult, but it’s helpful to consider what will best reflect your organisation, address the needs and vulnerabilities of users, and support safeguards you feel comfortable (and confident) using.

Originally aimed at an enterprise audience, Mashable provides a good list of objectives IT executives should consider when writing policies:

  • Introduce the purpose of social media.
  • Be responsible for what you write.
  • Be authentic.
  • Consider your audience.
  • Exercise good judgement.
  • Understand the concept of community.
  • Respect copyrights and fair use.
  • Remember to protect confidential information.
  • Bring value.
  • Effectively communicate the importance of productivity.

This is a strong beginning, but it also is important to anticipate challenges that will likely need tackling when a social media policy is implemented or updated.

Ideological challenges

One thing you can be sure of when working on a social media policy is that everyone will have an opinion to share. As in life, some thoughts expressed will be more positive than others, but open communication will help IT executives navigate around concerns and misunderstandings. Anxieties that often escalate ahead of change can be mitigated by making people feel their voice has been heard. Even with a clear sense of direction in mind, it’s best to first acknowledge ideas and concerns of other people, and then respond clearly with what can be achieved through the proposed change.

Technical challenges

A prevalent technical challenge is content filtering and security. To keep students safe, it is important that a good working relationship between school management, teachers and IT departments is established from the beginning – hence the need to thoughtfully handle ideological challenges. There must be a clear understanding about any technical changes that may be required.

In order to truly benefit from social media – as well as ensure student safety at all times – it is important to ensure dynamic access. Modern technology means that it is possible to get granular access to social media sites. For example, students can read but not post or have certain platforms available to specified year groups at certain times.

Another point to consider is that hackers often use social media platforms to load malware. A few years ago, a security vulnerability in Facebook was exploited by hackers, resulting in violent and pornographic content being posted on users’ profile pages. Other platforms also have been exploited to deliver malware, which can cause significant damage if undetected and/or left unfiltered.

Cultural challenges

Often the biggest challenge faced in implementing social media policies are cultural. To help overcome these, it is beneficial to:

  1. Agree a shared vision and purpose of why you want to change how social media is used in your organisation.
  2. Once staff have accepted how this change in social media use can benefit their students and curriculum, encourage them to find new ways that social media can enhance learning and teaching. In other words, do not focus on the tool, but rather what the tool can make possible
  3. When social media is being more widely adopted, encourage staff to consider the tool for professional development
  4. Throughout the process, always underline how students and staff alike can – and should – be responsible e-citizens. e-safety, good communication channels and best practice should be well established and will, in the end, be much more effective than over blocking.

Classrooms that challenge convention and allow young people to communicate and collaborate on a wider scale have enormous societal value. The adoption of social media is an important milestone on this journey and is best fostered with policies that allow growth and safety for all.

Do you have a social media policy? Let us know in the comments.

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