Facebook big brother? Administrators, coaches keep tabs on students’ online activity

GW golf coach Scott Allen isn’t just worrying about his players’ golf strokes anymore; he’s worrying about their keystrokes as well.

One of his players was drinking over the summer and posted photos of it onto the social networking site Facebook. Allen, who has kept tabs on his student-athletes online, asked the golfer to get rid of the pictures last semester.

“Whether it’s on the Internet or whether it’s in person, there’s a (proper) way for athletes to represent themselves,” Allen said. “With Facebook or MySpace – that’s just another way for you to do something stupid for you not to portray yourself in the manner you want.”

Allen is one of many coaches who signed up for Facebook last fall, after athletic officials asked them to be more proactive with keeping their players’ online behavior in check.

This regular monitoring of students by GW employees extends far beyond sporting fields.

As more students choose to upload their personal lives to sites such as Facebook, administrators are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of monitoring and censoring online material. Officials have registered as users for Facebook in growing numbers over the past year, with many using the site explicitly for investigative purposes.

The heads of several major GW departments said the site is a helpful resource for spotting inappropriate activity and, in some cases, having it removed.

As the reach of Facebook grows beyond the college student community, so do the consequences of careless online activity.

Athletics

In an annual speech last fall, Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz told coaches to address players’ use of sites like MySpace and Facebook in their team meetings and team rules. This is a policy that many universities are beginning to adopt following several incidents last year regarding athletes online.

Last May, members of the Catholic University varsity lacrosse team got suspended after they posted pictures on Facebook of them initiating their new players with alcohol and male strippers. In the same month at Northwestern University, women’s soccer players were seen hazing new members on the photo-sharing site Webshots. Pictures still viewable on blogs and other Web sites show blindfolded and bound players drinking, kissing each other and giving lap-dances to the men’s soccer team.

Allen, of the GW golf program, said athletes have a responsibility to uphold their team’s reputation online.

“Your behavior when you’re representing yourself is one thing, but when you’re representing your teammates and your coach, that’s another thing,” the coach said. He added that many of the coaches he speaks to regularly are checking their team’s Facebook profiles.

Senior Associate Director of Athletics Mary Jo Warner said it is up to individual coaches to determine what is considered appropriate online activity. Her department receives tips about questionable Web content, and she often responds by calling the coach of the team.

“Every coach is addressing it,” Warner said. “(It’s) really important to be cautious.”

Warner said that players can put their teams at risk by violating school policies as well as drug and alcohol laws. The school’s reputation is also a factor.

“Obviously we want to protect the image of the University and the athletic department,” Warner said.

Senior Bob Rohr, a member of the golf team, said he would rather have his coach checking up on his online photos than members of the athletic administration.

“If (Allen) is looking at our pictures and he sees something he doesn’t like – which is probably underage drinking – he would just be cool and say, ‘Take it down because it’s against policy, it’s against the law,'” Rohr said.

Allen hopes his online presence will cause players to think twice before compromising his team’s reputation. “Don’t think that because I’m not invited to the party I’m not going to see what you are doing there,” he said.

GW’s criminal justice system

With more than 21,000 users in Facebook’s GW network, University investigators routinely use the site’s rich supply of personal information in the course of their jobs.

There are eight profiles on Facebook registered to the e-mail addresses of UPD staff members. Unlike other profiles, those of UPD detectives and officers have little to no information, friends or photos – content often associated with normal social networking.

University Police Chief Dolores Stafford said her department uses the social networking site for law enforcement purposes.

“Facebook is one of many resources UPD uses to assist in the investigation of a reported incident/crime,” Stafford wrote in an e-mail last week.

She said that while the department does not use the site to initiate investigations, evidence from the site could be sufficient to charge a student with a crime. When asked if other sites like MySpace or YouTube are examined, Stafford said UPD uses “all resources that are available to us.”

Students should not be under the impression that their online actions are private, Stafford said.

“Always use common sense and understand that there should not be any expectation of privacy with information that students post in the public domain,” Stafford said.

In 2005, members of the unrecognized fraternities APES and Sigma Alpha Mu received warning letters from Student Judicial Services about alleged alcohol and drug use. SJS Director Tara Woolfson said at the time she used Facebook as a tool to determine the members of the groups.

Woolfson said last week that SJS does not police the Internet looking for students violating University policy. “The more likely scenario is that someone actually brings the picture of other on-line information to SJS and not just refer us to this type of information,” Woolfson wrote in an e-mail.

SJS might proactively use the Internet, Woolfson added, if officials have reason to believe that a student’s health or well-being is in jeopardy.

Student activities

Students active in campus life have also been subject to Facebook scrutiny.

Colonial Inauguration organizers said that they expect student Cabinet members to maintain a dignified image both in person and online. Questionable content posted on the Internet is censored, officials said.

“If it’s in public, then it needs to be professional,” said CI Director Renee Clement, “or at least something that’s going to reflect (on) you and the University community in a positive light.”

Clement, who is also an associate director of the Student Activities Center, said that unless someone directs her to a specific person’s online activity, she only reads the profiles of her friends.

She added, however, that there have been several instances when Cabinet members have joined groups she deemed inappropriate, and she asked them to remove that information from their profile. In those cases, which she said focused on drunkenness, Clement instructed CI student supervisors to remind the Cabinet members to be careful.

Her fear, she said, is that incoming freshmen will begin their GW careers with the wrong impression of the student body. “We make sure that we’re not closing people off to the GW community over something as silly as Facebook,” Clement said.

SAC Director Tim Miller, who has purview over all registered student organizations, said groups should take time to monitor what they post online.

Miller, who has a Facebook profile with 274 online friends at GW, said that while he doesn’t police the Internet, he has to respond to problems that are brought to his attention. He said inappropriate content is more apparent because of Facebook “news feeds” – a four-month-old feature that lists online friends’ recently posted photos and profile changes.

“If someone came up to me and said that a club has pictures of its members really drunk – including the underage ones – I would go look (into it) … Those things can come back to haunt those members,” Miller said.

So far, SAC has not punished any student organizations because of online material, but Miller is taking measures to prevent a serious problem from arising. He is creating flyers to educate students on how to best represent those groups in online settings.

Privacy concerns

A primary mission of Facebook, according to the site, is for users to “create profiles to connect with friends, share interests, join groups,” among other social activities. When asked whether it is against the purpose of the networking site for members to monitor and censor others, Facebook spokesperson Meredith Chin declined to say if this practice was right or not.

Regardless of a person’s purpose in being a registered user, Chin said anyone with a “.edu” e-mail address is permitted to be on the site. She added that the company encourages members to turn on privacy controls to prevent strangers from viewing personal information.

Computer science professor Lance Hoffman, a cyber ethics specialist, said students should treat the Internet as a public space.

“It seems to me that … you ought to be smart enough to realize that if you have a Facebook account, anybody in the world can look at it – including UPD officers,” Hoffman said.

He explained that the school is not invading students’ privacy because they forego their right to privacy each time they log on to social networking sites.

“If you put it out to the world then you have to expect that the world is going to come to your doorstep.” n

-David Ceasar contributed to this report.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.