Hey Google, tell me about my teacher.

What educators’ “digital footprints” tell students, parents, colleagues, and community members about them can influence how they are perceived—and, ultimately, this information might shape how students interact with teachers in the classroom. Students are curious about teachers’ personal lives, so they may search for them on social media sites and comb the internet to find out more about them. Most educators err on the side of caution when sharing parts of their lives on social media sites, knowing that what they post on social media will most likely be viewed by those in their communities and schools. Proactively, school districts craft their acceptable use policies to include guidelines or even mandates for social media use for both students and teachers. Unfortunately, these policies often have a flaw—one that all school leaders should know about.

Students Create Imposter Accounts

Teens’ usage of social media multiple times a day increased from 34 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2018. Take a moment to watch a YouTube video (with more than 9 million views) titled “I Made a Fake Twitter Account of My Teacher” found at https://youtu.be/b9maIRk4Iec. It’s an animated story of what happened when a student created and used a social media account impersonating their teacher. Law enforcement became involved but only inconsequential discipline occurred at school. A teachers’ union polled its local members and found that approximately one-third of the 1,500 members reported being the victim of cyberbullying by teen students. Are you concerned? You should be. This is happening increasingly often, and there are limited legal consequences for students.

Real Stories of Cyberbullying

With a device in hand, connected to social media, the social structures between adults and teen students are flattened. In our conversations with teens, one of the first things they do when they don’t like their teacher is to “look up dirt” on them. In an article titled “Have You Googled Your Teacher Lately? Teachers’ Use of Social Networking Sites,” published in Phi Delta Kappan, the authors state, “In a world where social connections and friendships are newly defined by user-generated content on the internet, it is unclear where privacy ends and professional life begins. It might be best to view these situations as ‘significant ethical dilemmas posed by a technology-dependent 21st-century world.’ ”

Cyberbullying has become a catchall phrase for an array of online communications designed to harass, exclude, and impersonate others. In a report titled “Bullying in the Digital Age: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of Cyberbullying Research Among Youth” published in Psychological Bulletin 140, authors Kowalski, Giumetti, Schroeder, and Lattaner reveal that those who cyberbully use many types of platforms, including social media. Labeling when students post fake accounts of teachers as “cyberbullying” highlights the power imbalance between the student and teacher in reverse; students have power over many teachers because they may be more technologically savvy. Additionally, the report highlights another key variable—that the “perpetrators of cyberbullying often perceive themselves to be anonymous.” The anonymity of social media provides an opportunity for students to say things to or about teachers that they wouldn’t say in person.

There are many news stories of students creating imposter accounts. Examples include using Tinder (a dating app) to humiliate teachers, posting unflattering pictures online to fake accounts, posting videos of classroom mishaps to YouTube, and so on. In many stories, school district policy and laws illustrate loopholes that minimize student responsibility while educators become the victims of cyberbullying. Consider these salient examples:

  • Students Suspended: Students created a Photoshop-edited picture of a teacher’s computer to make it appear as if the teacher was viewing porn at school, then shared the picture with other students via social media. A student who was not at school at the time posted the picture she received to Snapchat. The teacher pressed charges, claiming that the post was an “injurious message on the internet.” Ultimately, the authorities found no pornographic material on the teacher’s computer, and the student transferred to another school. The case went to court and was remanded to juvenile court, where five students were suspended. There was no other legal action.
  • No Action Taken: An imposter Facebook page of a teacher was used to send messages to students. Law enforcement tracked the offending computer to the house of a former student. Since the page wasn’t generated on school property, the incident was deemed criminal and not punishable under district policy. Local law enforcement stated the only alleged criminal activity was the potential stolen identity. While the page initially continued to send messages to current students, eventually the page was shut down, and no criminal action was taken.
  • Legal Loopholes Prevent Consequences: Five middle level students created a fake social media account to represent their assistant principal in a less-than-professional manner. The assistant principal attempted to sue the five students under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The court ruled against the assistant principal, stating that the claim was too broad and the lawsuit was an inappropriate use of the statute. The court ruled that the intended purpose of the CFAA was to curtail computer hacking, and this case was about the creation of a fake account, rather than hacking an existing account with the intent to cause harm. At the time, Facebook contained more than 80 million active accounts that were “duplicates, false, or undesirable,” and any attempt to criminalize this activity would cast an overly broad and unenforceable criminal net. There were other claims within the lawsuit as well, including an attempt to invoke the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was also struck down by the court.

These cases are clear violations of the terms of service agreement for each social media site referenced. While students may lose privileges on the social media site as a result of their actions, it is not difficult for a fake account to reemerge. The common thread within these examples is that there is no clear legal path and, typically, no school district policy in place to address the situation of students creating imposter accounts of teachers and school leaders with the intent to cause harm or retaliate.

Understanding Development of the Teenage Brain

The fact is, teens are making choices that have far-reaching consequences to people’s lives, and sometimes those consequences are dire. Jay Giedd, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at UC San Diego, has conducted extensive research on the teen brain. His most important finding shows that the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulses and helps individuals to make rational decisions, does not fully mature until individuals reach their mid-20s.

Until the prefrontal cortex is fully mature, the limbic system has primacy. The limbic system, commonly referred to as the “lizard brain,” contributes to impulsive behavior and emotionally based decision making. Giedd’s work is illustrated when we see teens making irrational or impulsive decisions, including creating imposter social media accounts of teachers. However, the teen brain is also incredibly agile (called neuroplasticity), and Giedd suggests that rational decision making and impulse control can be taught.

Call to Action

Building learning communities and fostering positive teacher-student relationships are fundamentally important to preventing cyberbullying of teachers by students. Based on prior investigations of this issue and according to the previously mentioned Phi Delta Kappan article, we know that “social networking sites … do not mark the end of the line for innovations that push the envelope of professional ethics for educators.” However, when these systems fail, cyberbullying will inevitably occur. Our concern is the many loopholes relating to school district policy and state and federal law.

We must be vigilant about both educator and student rights. While districts cannot create a policy for every situation, ignoring the issue or waiting for an incident to set a precedent is not wise. Above are concrete actions that school leaders and educators can take to mitigate cyberbullying.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Student cyberbullying of teachers is one of the unintended consequences of the flattening of boundaries between educators and students as a result of social media use. Teacher professional development, student instruction, district policies, and state and federal law must adapt to the challenges posed by the ubiquity of social media. School leaders must continue to evolve and adapt and anticipate the challenges of technologies that are yet to be introduced.

Heather L. Carter is assistant professor of practice of public health at the University of Arizona, Phoenix, and a senator in the Arizona legislature serving as chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. Ann Dutton Ewbank is associate professor of education at Montana State University-Bozeman. Teresa S. Foulger is associate professor of educational technology at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

Sidebar: Actions for School Leaders

  1. Create clear policies. School leaders should examine existing policies in light of student creation of imposter accounts and cyberbullying. Encourage your school district to establish a task force to formulate clear procedures for how to handle incidents.
  2. Establish consistent consequences. An ounce of prevention will help mitigate incidents and may assist districts in avoiding criminal prosecution or litigation. Investigations and consequences for students must be administered in a fair and consistent manner.

Guidance for Educators

  1. Monitor your privacy settings. While users can control the privacy settings on social media, it is often difficult to make an account fully private. Even if privacy settings are limited to “friends,” anticipate any online communication to be copied, forwarded, or otherwise distributed broadly.
  2. Google yourself. Consider your digital footprint as important to your career as your personal credit score is to your finances. Frequently search social media and the internet for fraudulent activity. See if there are any imposter accounts with your name, likeness, or image online. Google offers a “reverse image search” that can identify where photos are posted.
  3. Report concerns. Should something arise, take screenshots right away. Report any concerns to your building principal and to law enforcement if needed. Retain any correspondence. This will become critically important if there are additional investigations.