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Study: School Facebook Pages May Compromise Student Privacy

A recent study by the American Educational Research Association estimated that 4.9 million Facebook posts on official school pages include identifiable images of students, risking the attention of nefarious actors.

A person circling drawings of people's heads in red.
(AP Photo/Kevin Wang)
Protecting student privacy is becoming a top concern for schools across the country, notably since the pandemic when instruction went virtual, leaving educators in need of training to protect student privacy. Legislators haven’t moved the needle much on the issue, which has led some to wonder when there will be an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. A study released last week by a team of university researchers found that some social media practices being used by schools could be creating privacy risks.

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) in a news release last week revealed the results of a study saying that social media posts by schools could be compromising the privacy of students. According to the study, schools across the country have shared nearly 5 million Facebook posts that include identifiable images of students, with some 726,000 of those posts identifying kids by their full names, potentially putting the student’s privacy at risk. From 2005 through 2020, the timeframe of the study examining publicly accessible posts on Facebook by all public schools and school districts in the country, schools published roughly 18 million posts, with the frequency increasing annually.

The news release said about 13.9 million of those 18 million posts included images of people of any age, leading researchers to estimate that 4.9 million had identifiable images of the students. This will be a major concern as technology improves, study co-author Joshua M. Rosenberg said.

“It is likely that the photos are being accessed by a range of actors, including government agencies, predictive policing companies, and those with nefarious intent,” Rosenberg, an assistant professor of STEM education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said in a public statement. “The threat to privacy will continue to grow, perhaps quickly, due to expanding facial recognition technology.”

Rosenberg conducted the study along with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the University of Oregon, the University of Utah and the University of Tübingen, Germany. Rosenberg said in a public statement that a reverse image search on Google could link a student to other sources of personally identifiable information online.

Government agencies in the U.S. and other countries regularly access public social media data for purposes ranging from monitoring immigration and predicting crime risks to documenting social connections, according to the study. But the researchers said schools can easily mitigate the threat of student privacy with a handful of safe practices: not including full names in posts, asking parents to opt into sharing children’s information on school social pages in lieu of opting out of such posts, providing an easy process for parents to request their child’s photo be removed from a post, and making school and district pages private. Lawmakers and social media companies could help the cause too, Rosenberg said in a public statement.

“As a nation, the U.S. needs to devote greater attention and resources to mitigating the potential downsides of the pervasive sharing of children’s information on social media, particularly when it is organizations such as schools and districts that are doing the sharing,” Rosenberg said. “While parents and schools can take steps to protect student privacy, it is also the responsibility of social media platforms and the wider society to ensure that policies and regulations keep pace with rapidly evolving technology.”