Time for a Facebook intervention?

Today’s Jam

One of my favorite high school students “friended” me on Facebook after his graduation. As his long-time homeroom teacher and mentor, I decided to accept the friend request. Last fall, my student began his studies at a university far from home. Over time, I have noticed that he has been posting more and more pictures of himself at parties, drinking alcohol (as a minor) and smoking marijuana. I don’t want to be intrusive, but I am concerned both about his behavior and the image he is putting forth online. What do you recommend I do?

Dan Brosgol says…

e.Dan Brosgol

Kids today are not much different than I was in the late 1990s, when I was in college. The only difference is that social media has made all of these kids’ lives instantly-publishable and lived out in real time on their smartphones.

In this case, it’s clear to me that the pictures shouldn’t be online. I’ve become very particular about what kinds of pictures I put up on Facebook and what kinds of topics I write about on my blog. Some of this I learned the hard way, not understanding the realities of the internet. All of us have to be conscious of how our lives interact with and are archived in the digital universe.

College kids will always drink and do many other things that most of us did when we were that age, and I’ll be the last one to put on my old-man hat and shake an accusing finger at them telling them to stop. But what I do with my students regularly is remind them that there is no such thing as online privacy, and that every naïve foray into “but no one will see it” is folly. There’s no hiding from Google or any other search engine that can locate pictures of you from a pub crawl or the tongue-in-cheek blog post you thought would go unnoticed by a potential employer or internship supervisor. I recommend that you have a similar conversation with your student. While he and his peers may be digital natives in ways you and I will never be, they are still in need of guidance from their teachers and mentors.

Dan Brosgol is the Director of Prozdor, a 500-student supplementary school for students in grades 6-12 operated out of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He holds a BA in Politics from Brandeis University and both a certificate in Jewish Day School Education and an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew College. Dan is pursuing a doctorate in education at Northeastern University and is regular blogger for JewishBoston.com. He is an avid runner and Boston sports fan, and lives in Bedford, MA, with his wife and four children..

David Jaffe says…

e.David Jaffe

I completely agree with Dan regarding the issue of internet privacy, but would go a step further. If you are concerned about your student’s behavior it is important that you speak to him about it. While it is true that a certain percentage of college students will always drink and smoke, as teachers and mentors we still have a responsibility to speak up if we believe our students are acting in problematic ways. This situation brings to mind the classic statement in the Talmud, “… if one has the ability to protest against the wrongdoing of members of his city [and does not], he is considered responsible for [the wrongdoing] of the members of his city….” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54a).

I think Dan raises an important point when he warns against raising an “accusing finger.” As the Talmud teaches, “Just as a person is obligated to rebuke if the rebuke will be heard, so one is obligated not to give rebuke if it will not be heard (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 65b).” How you approach your student may be even more important than what you say to him. Finger wagging will not work. In fact, it may evoke an anti-authority response and lead him to engage in even more destructive behavior. However, as teachers we can’t use this as an excuse; we need to figure out effective ways of offering our students constructive criticism. While this young man may be receiving guidance about alcohol and drugs from his resident advisor or parents, by friending you on Facebook he invited you—his mentor—into this part of his life. I believe that when we publically display unhealthy behaviors, there is some part of us (conscious or not) that is asking for help. Therefore, I would advise you to reach out to your student.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the Mashgiach Ruchani/Spiritual Advisor at Gann Academy where he created and runs the Chanoch LaNa’ar initiative. He is also the Founder and Dean of the Kirva Institute. His teaching, organizing, writing and consulting explore the intersection of moral-spiritual development and ethical action in the world. He is currently working on a book about the inner-life and social activism to be published in 2013.

Sue Fendrick says…

e.SueFendrick Headshot

What David says about how you approach your student is, to my mind, the key to your response. This is not just any former student but a favorite, and you’re not just any former teacher but a mentor; there’s a relationship here and it must remain at the heart of your approach. An advice-laden email might be tempting—it would let you carefully craft what you’d like to say—but it wouldn’t tap into your in-person dynamic with its years of history. (You also might not want this frank discussion archived electronically.) Make a point of getting together with your student for coffee this summer or at some other time when he’s home on a school break, panim el panim (face to face). Have a conversation that includes many topics, where you bring up this one and are also clearly interested in talking about—and especially listening to—what’s on his mind (which might even turn out to overlap with what’s on yours). That will be the most fertile ground on which to offer your student perspective on and advice about his online presence and his relationship to drugs and alcohol.

I want to offer a second recommendation that goes beyond the specifics of this situation. High schools have an obligation to help their students not only to prepare academically for college and to navigate the selection process, but also to make thoughtful life choices once they arrive on their college campuses (about internet use, drugs and alcohol, sex, religion, political activism, etc). Perhaps this experience could serve as a prod for your institution to explore how it is preparing its students for the road ahead.

Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick, a Conservative rabbi, is a freelance editor, writer, and spiritual director, and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Turn It and Turn It Again: Studies in the Teaching and Learning of Classical Jewish Texts (Academic Studies Press). Her writing appears in numerous books, journals, and online publications. She has served as a rabbi at American University and Brown University, as founding editor of SocialAction.com and managing editor of MyJewishLearning.com, as a consultant and teacher of adult Jewish education in a variety of settings, and as an assistant faculty member to Peter Pitzele in the bibliodrama training program at the Institute for Contemporary Midrash.

Now, what do YOU say?

Our panelists—all veteran educators—have shared their views on the subject. Now what do you think? How would you respond to this case as a teacher or a student? How do you decide what to post or write online? What are your digital red lines? We want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)