Incorporating social media training into a school curriculum

By Brendan T. Malvey

In September 2014, the United Kingdom added cyber-security to its secondary school curriculum. Schools in Britain will now educate students on firewalls, malware, and cybercrime, as well as teach students about career opportunities in the field of cyber-security.

The move was reportedly in response to growing concerns over a rising skills gap in the country.

Some sobering statistics coming out of the Pew Research Center and a recent U.S. Supreme Court case highlight the fact that we have our own skills gap here at home. This gap has caused some schools in the United States to follow Britain’s lead, and incorporate social media training into their classrooms.

The Pew Research Center, in conjunction with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has conducted a number of surveys concerning teens and social media use. According to the surveys, over 90 percent of children aged 12 to 17 are now online, and over 80 percent of them use a social networking site.

More than 90 percent use their real names and post real photos of themselves, and 82 percent share their birth date. Of the millions of teens on Facebook, nearly 90 percent are connected to friends who do not attend the same school, and 33 percent are friends with people they have never met in person.

The Pew Research Center also found that a majority of teens report witnessing some form of online harassment on the social networking sites they use. A full 60 percent of teen users witnessed someone being called an offensive name, 53 percent witnessed efforts to purposefully embarrass someone, and 25 percent witnessed someone being physically threatened.

It is perhaps even more worrisome that 50 percent of women age 18 to 24 report being called offensive names online, and approximately 25 percent report being stalked, sexually harassed, or physically threatened online.

In an age where most states have passed some form of anti-bullying legislation, it is incumbent on schools to recognize this trend, and respond.

Do free speech rights extend to threatening online posts?

The topic of online harassment is at the heart of a case currently before the Supreme Court. In Elonis v. United States, argued in December 2014, the court is considering whether free speech rights apply to purportedly threatening messages posted on Facebook.

Anthony Elonis is appealing his conviction for threatening his estranged wife and others via Facebook in violation of a federal law that makes it a crime to use a form of interstate communication (such as the Internet) to threaten to injure another person. Elonis maintains that the messages were posted in the form of fictitious rap lyrics as a therapeutic way to blow off steam.

The Supreme Court will decide whether the government must prove a defendant’s “subjective intent” to threaten (as required by Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals), or whether it is enough that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening.

Although the Elonis case does not involve teens, the outcome could nonetheless change how people use Facebook and other social networking sites.

First-of-its-kind curriculum

To address concerns over teens and social media, Fordham Law School’s Center for Law and Information Policy (CLIP) launched a first-of-its-kind curriculum in 2013 for privacy education geared toward middle school students.

The course covers numerous topics, including: privacy; passwords; behavioral ads; social media; Wi-Fi; facial recognition; mobile devices; and managing a digital reputation. According to Joel Reidenberg, Fordham Law professor and founding director of CLIP, the program was designed “to help educate children about how to use these devices safely so they don’t make mistakes that can impact them for many years.”

Fordham has since partnered with over a dozen universities, including Harvard and Roger Williams, to teach the program in middle schools across the country. The curriculum is now available as a set of free, open source documents to any educators who want to use the instructional materials in their classrooms.

The CLIP curriculum not only educates students on privacy concerns, but also teaches each student how to manage their digital reputation.
Many students do not realize that potential employers and higher education institutions may peruse their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts or LinkedIn profiles, before making a decision on whether to hire or accept them. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. companies use social media for recruitment, and, of those, 95 percent are using LinkedIn.

Companies are increasingly looking for employees with specific social media skills. According to Fortune magazine, the job search website Indeed reported seeing in 2013 “an increased demand for social savvy candidates across the business – from human resources to product to customer service.”

Moreover, compared to 2012, there were 13 times as many jobs on Indeed that involved the use of social media in some way. Training students on responsible social networking will not only keep them safe, but will also arm them with valuable skills as they enter the workforce.

The CLIP curriculum is an excellent start, and provides yet another way in which schools can educate students on important skills.

Brendan is an associate at Barton Gilman LLP, focusing on education law, professional liability defense, business litigation, and insurance coverage.