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United Eductors Insights Blog: Responding to Social Apps on Campus

12/9/2015 4:00:09 PM

Teenagers are using a secret phone app to send illicit pictures. The app is called Private Photo (Calculator%) and is known as a ghost app. These apps—designed to look and function like normal apps—are built to conceal photos, video, and information. Educators and administrators should note that technology changes constantly and most students have access to these social tools.

But faculty and staff are also using “ephemeral messaging” and “anonymous” apps in an effort to disguise and delete their communications. Public school administrators in California recently tried to skirt the state’s public records law by using Cyber Dust, an app that appears to delete messages as soon as they are read, similar to the well-known Snapchat. And last month, several women’s and civil rights groups asked the federal government to help protect students from anonymous social apps such as Yik Yak.

Administrators could choose to ignore these emerging social media platforms or ban their use by students, faculty, and staff. However, such policies are short-sighted because technology, social media, and constant communication at schools and colleges are here to stay. UE recommends four steps for managing these apps on campus.

  1. Broaden campus policies to cover the use of social media platforms and apps. Many institutions include social media among the forums in which harassment, assault, and misconduct will not be tolerated. For example, Bethune-Cookman University’s nondiscrimination statement applies to conduct on and off campus and through the use of technology resources and specifically refers to social media platforms in its policy on electronic communications. Rather than trying to monitor all known social media platforms, institutions should make clear that reported misconduct will be addressed as outlined in the policy. In addition, a recent court case involving the University of Kansas shows that schools and colleges must ensure their policies apply everywhere—not only when students or employees are electronically communicating from or to campus.
  2. Make resources available for students or employees who are being harassed. Trolling, or anonymous Internet harassment and bullying, is an unfortunate side effect of many social media platforms. To assist students or employees who may be victims of harassment, create resources or direct them to pre-existing support on campus. For instance, Humboldt State University built a series of FAQs for students who face online harassment. The University of North Carolina built a website to inform, prevent, and report Internet trolls. The site features specific resources for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Yik Yak.
  3. Work with local law enforcement and your campus threat assessment team when necessary. Notify law enforcement immediately if you believe a crime has occurred or a threat of harm exists. In the ghost app example above, students sending nude photos of other students and themselves implicated laws protecting minors. Law enforcement can also help campuses respond to threatening messages made anonymously online. Although apps like Yik Yak claim to provide anonymity to posters, app companies routinely work with law enforcement to identify users who threaten the health and safety of others. For example, Virginia Tech University recently worked with the Blacksburg Police Department to arrest a student who posted threats online. An institution’s campus threat assessment team should also be notified of social media behavior presenting a threat of harm to self or others. This team can assess the potential for harm and, where appropriate, suggest helpful intervention strategies.
  4. Use the platforms to connect with students. Students spend several hours on social media apps every day. Savvy schools and colleges recognize that to communicate effectively with their students, they must do so via platforms that students regularly use. Email communication alone is no longer sufficient to effectively interact with the campus community. Northern Michigan University has an official Snapchat account to communicate with students and assist with recruitment. The University of Michigan asks student resource groups to interact with peers on social media; when a Michigan student posted a suicide threat on Yik Yak, the university was able to quickly and effectively intervene.

By Joe Vossen, Associate Risk Management Counsel, November 2015

Categories: Risk

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