I’m a big fan of the New York Times Magazine‘s weekly column, The Ethicist. I’m not a big fan, however, of the column’s namesake, Randy Cohen. He is often much too consequentialist for my liking, too simplistic is his ethical analyses, and his attempts to include humor in his responses typically fail (and are an unnecessary distraction from often very interesting ethical dilemmas).
That said, Cohen got it right this week. In an entry titled “A Facebook Teaching Moment”, the scenarior is about a teacher who has been “friended” by a number of her students Facebook, and subsequently gains access to tibits about their lives, including “the inevitable under-age drinking and drug use and occasional school-related mischief like cheating on tests or plagiarizing assignments.” The question posed to Cohen is whether the teacher has an obligation to report any of these activities to the school, the police or the parents of the students.
Cohen says no, the teacher should engage with the students and turn this into a teaching momement about privacy and online social networks. Importantly, Cohen recognizes that just because the students “friended” the teacher, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any expectations of privacy within the social networking context:
Strictly speaking, when these students gave her access to their Facebook pages, they waived their right to privacy. But that’s not how many kids see it. To them, Facebook and the like occupy some weird twilight zone between public and private information, rather like a diary left on the kitchen table. That a photo of drunken antics might thwart a chance at a job or a scholarship is not something all kids seriously consider. This teacher can get them to think about that.
Well done, Ethicist.