Generational Knowledge

Experts on technology and the law bring in some of their college-age kids to talk about Facebook and how colleges should deal with it.
July 20, 2011

ITHACA, N.Y. — “Mom, la-la-la-la-la time,” said Nikko Schaff, a rising sophomore at the Rochester Institute of technology, as he prepared to explain the strategy of turning off one’s phone before going to a college party so as to preclude the sending of imprudent text messages.

Tracy Mitrano, director of I.T. policy at Cornell University and Schaff's mother, laughed and pretended to plug her ears.

The audience laughed too, for the point of the panel, held Tuesday here at the annual gathering of the Institute for Computer Policy and Law (ICPL), was to do exactly the opposite: to bridge the generational gap between students and college officials in hope of getting an idea of what students want, and what they should expect, from campus policymakers in the age of social media.

For the Millennial perspective, the ICPL members enlisted the closest college students at hand: their kids. Alongside Mitrano and Schaff, John King, the vice provost for strategy at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, appeared with his son, Matthew, a spring graduate of Eastern Michigan University. Cynthia Golden, the director of instructional development and distance education at the University of Pittsburgh, brought her daughter, Hannah Somers, a rising sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The discussion focused mainly on Facebook. The younger panelists copped to being ignorant of how the data they volunteered might be used and who might end up seeing their postings when they first joined Facebook during high school. They reported having since wised up and availed themselves of Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, but acknowledged that many of their peers are not so careful.

Indeed, the short history of Facebook is checkered with cases of self-incrimination. Some colleges have disciplined students for messages posted to Facebook, and many have warned students against posting pictures and comments that might compromise their job prospects down the line.

But Somers, the Wisconsin student, warned against sending students mixed messages. “I feel like you can’t [say], ‘Well, we’re really here to help you learn how to deal with it best, but you’re still learning… and also take everything that we see and turn that against you, if that’s how it turns out,' ” she said.

In other words: if a college believes its duties in loco parentis should include policing bad behavior on Facebook, then it should also teach students how to avoid having their bad behavior preserved in the amber of social media.

Schaff, the RIT student, suggested that colleges might even show some lenience toward students who'd had the good sense to untag compromising photos taken by others even if they end up surfacing anyway. “It depends on the situation,” Schaff said, but “there should at least be a clause where it was seen that someone untagged themselves or something, then that should be taken into consideration.” (Though, he acknowledged, “It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t there in the first place.”)

The idea that there might be some hypocrisy in a college that punishes students for Facebook-borne indiscretions after failing to teach students about the gravity of their social media outputs found some sympathizers in the older generation. A number of the technologists and policymakers on hand lamented the fact that between advising students on the dangers of alcohol abuse, unsafe sex, and a host of other tripwires that can be difficult to spot in the wilds of early adulthood, there was little room for primers on the perils of social media.

So how can colleges make students understand the implications of posting to Facebook? The assembled administrators put the question to the younger panelists.

“We care how much we have to read,” said Matthew King, the Eastern Michigan graduate. Students get about as many orientation packets as they can handle already, he said. Also, having it come from the dean’s office might not be as effective as having it come from student organizations. “We want to hear it from our peers,” King said. “We don’t want to hear, ‘Facebook is big, bad, and can wreck your life.’ ”

“What people will respond to,” he continued, “is ‘Facebook can be an incredible development tool for you, but you have to learn how to use it.’ ” Adopting a tone of "Reefer Madness"-style alarmism is a sure way of getting students to tune out, King said. Somers and Schaff agreed that students would be more likely to change their behavior if the warnings came from inside the dorm.

Mitrano suggested that rather than treating the symptom — indiscreet postings — colleges might try to treat the disease: ignorance about Facebook’s business model. Students are generally averse to the idea of being manipulated by larger, authoritative forces, she said. Once they hear about data mining and anti-privacy nudges, Mitrano said, they might be more likely to snap to attention.

“That is when lightbulbs go off,” she said. “That is when they have learned more about the Internet, in one fell swoop, than you could teach them in 27 different discrete discussions about a particular application.”

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