Teens and Social Media: How do Schools Fit In?

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Social Media has exploded in recent years as the most popular way for young people to communicate. At the time of a Pew study created in 2012, 95 percent of teens aged 12-17 had access to the Internet. Thirty-seven percent owned some sort of smart phone, and 80 percent had a computer. Eighty-one percent reported regularly using some sort of social media platform. While the specific social media platforms that teens actually use has evolved over the years, it’s clear that using these types of sites to communicate isn’t going away any time soon. Given that students are moving away from the kind of social media that their parents are attracted to, the question is clear: is anyone monitoring what happens on social media sites between teenagers? Read on to learn about the debate, the perspective of schools, and where we currently stand.

Teens and Social Media

Why might schools get involved with student social media use?

The 1969 Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines established the precedent that public-school students retain their First Amendment rights to Freedom of Expression while in school. Since Tinker, however, other cases have gradually placed limits on students’ Freedom of Expression to ensure schools are able to maintain their goal of public education. The 1986 case Bethel v. Fraiser allowed schools to curtail free speech if the student’s speech could cause a major disruption within the school environment. Morse v. Frederick (2007) justified a school’s discipline of a student who held up a sign reading “bong hits 4 jesus” at a school-sponsored event, even though the incident technically occurred off school grounds.

There is general consent that student forfeit some of their First Amendment rights when in school; however, problems such as cyber bullying have prompted many to question whether schools can punish students for the content they post on social media websites. The Glendale School District in suburban Los Angeles recently signed a $40,500 contract with a tech firm to monitor their students on social media and report any questionable activity, prompting many to ask whether this sort of surveillance takes school security too far.

What are the arguments for getting schools involved in monitoring social media use?

Those in favor of school jurisdiction over social media argue that this type of surveillance could help reduce incidents caused by cyber bullying as well as students who exhibit signs of depression or suicidal thoughts. Cyber bullying has increased among middle school and high school students, often having disastrous effects upon both the victims and bullies involved. Many school administrators and parents feel that one of the best ways to combat this problem is for schools to be able to monitor and punish students for their activity on social media, allowing them to catch cyber bullying as it is occurring.

Schools could also become aware of students with serious emotional distress. At Glendale High School, school administrators were able to report and find help for a student talking about “ending his life” on social media. “We were able to save a life,” said Richard Sheehan, the Glendale Superintendent. Others argue from a legal perspective that the monitoring of social media falls under a school’s jurisdiction. Some argue that social media is a public domain, and so anything that is posted there is public and can be used by schools as evidence of wrongdoing. Additionally, citing Bethel v. Fraiser, others argue that inflammatory remarks and vicious cyber bullying can often have just as much effect in school as out of school, and so if social media activity disrupts the school’s learning environment, then it is well within the school’s right to limit that free speech.

What are the arguments against schools having jurisdiction over students’ social media?

Opponents argue that school authority over social media would be a violation of the First Amendment rights of students and would set a dangerous precedent for the authority of public schools. In some cases, students have been required by their school to download spying software onto their phones so that the school could monitor their internet activity, while in another case a student’s phone was taken and used to see the private profiles of his friends in order to find evidence of wrongdoing. Many critics see this as schools overstepping their disciplinary boundaries and going to unreasonable lengths to censor student speech.

The Griffith School District in Indiana is currently involved in a lawsuit concerning three girls who were suspended for joking on Facebook about which classmates they would like to “kill” (despite their obvious sarcasm, and the fact that the school received a letter from a boy referred to as one of the students to be “killed” who said he was in no way offended by the posts and saw them as a joke).

Afraid of public schools becoming an authoritarian “Big Brother” that watch students not only in school but out as well, critics feel this sort of surveillance will lead to unprecedented restriction of the First Amendment rights of public school students. Opponents also believe schools should adhere to the current boundaries of their jurisdiction, defined as school property or at school-sanctioned events. Because social media falls into neither of these two categories, students should retain their freedom of expression on these sites.


Social media use among teens is rampant — and it’s not all as cut and dry as some of the schools make it seem. While schools may be able to monitor some aspects of social media, others are harder to control, such as Yik Yak, a social media platform that revolves around anonymity. Because it is anonymous, the schools have no good way to police it. There are other apps that allow anonymity — “Whisper” and “Secret” are two other popular ones, but Yik Yak has proven to be the most popular.

It is important that schools discourage cyber bullying; however, how far they can go to stop it is still uncertain. The actions schools can take will have to evolve concurrently with social media trends.



NYC Department of Education: Social Media Guidelines

Griffith (Indiana) Middle School: Handbook


Wake Forest Law Review: How Public Schools Can Constitutionally Halt Cyberbullying

The New York Times: Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray

BetaBeat: New Jersey High School Students Forgot the First Rule of ‘Fight Club’

Here and Now: Bullies Beware: Schools Hire Social Media Monitors

ASCD: Can Social Media and School Policies Be Friends?

ABC: School Official Accused of Accessing Student’s Facebook Page

ABA Journal: Site Unseen: Schools, Bosses Barred From Eyeing Students’, Workers’ Social Media

Atlantic: What Right Do Schools Have to Discipline Students For What They Say Off Campus?

Student Press Law Center: Profiles Cause Crackdown Social Media and Student Discipline in Public Schools

Center for Digital Education: Student Social Media Monitoring Stirs Up Debate

California Casualty Leadership: Cyber Misconduct, Discipline and the Law

Joseph Palmisano
Joseph Palmisano is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in History and Education. He has a background in historical preservation, public education, freelance writing, and business. While currently employed as an insurance underwriter, he maintains an interest in environmental and educational reform. Contact Joseph at



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