Busted U? Colleges Catch Students Breaking Rules Via Social-Networking Sites

Universities increasingly setting policy for social networking; using sites to police student behavior.

Last semester, four freshmen at Syracuse University established a group on Facebook dedicated to badmouthing an instructor. When the group was brought to the attention of administrators, the students were threatened with expulsion, forced to make fliers about the dangers of Facebook, required to write letters of apology and dismissed from the class in question.

As social-networking site membership continues to surge — MySpace is up to approximately 90 million users — the fact that college-age students have a well-established reputation as early adopters of technology like instant messaging, downloading and social networking is leading universities to suddenly pay a lot more attention to Web sites like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook. MySpace may be "a place for friends," but university administrators are dubbing such sites "a place for potential trouble."

Many colleges encourage building bridges — and particularly on-campus community — via the Web, but when classes commence later this month, some rulebooks will include codes of conduct regulating online behavior.

"We're just trying to help them be aware that there are consequences, regardless of how you use it," said Tara Redmon, coordinator of the Making Academic and Social Transitions Educationally Rewarding Plan at Western Kentucky University.

By now, many students have heard that employers are logging on to MySpace and performing Google searches to dig beneath the surface of résumés while considering job applicants (see "How 'Yours' Is Your MySpace Page? Some Cautionary Advice ..."). But what they often don't know is that school officials may also be trolling these sites looking for evidence of violations of school policy — or the law.

Some schools are holding students accountable for boasting about breaking rules on a blog or posting pictures that depict punishable violations. And while many universities deny policing sites for these infractions, some are doling out punishments if rule-breaking catches the eye of an administrator.

"[Facebook] represents a forum in which one can make choices about their identity, at least insofar as one chooses to represent themselves publicly," Tracy Mitrano, director of IT Policy and the Computer Policy & Law Program at Cornell University, wrote in an online statement about the school's Facebook policy. "Because we live in a society in which expression is judged in legal, policy and even personal ways, it is important to remember the consequences of that expression no matter how ephemeral or fun in the moment it might seem to be."

When swarms of Pennsylvania State University students rushed the football field after a win last fall, a post-game riot overwhelmed police. Though only two culprits were arrested on game day, police were able to track down some of the guilty parties later on Facebook: Students had launched a group on the site named "I Rushed the Field After the OSU Game (And Lived!)."

In light of such a situation, some students worry they're being watched — which in some instances is true. Ken Vance, director of public safety at Georgia College & State University, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in January that he assigns an officer to scour Facebook daily for clues about upcoming parties that may require police presence. Campus security officers at other universities have also admitted to perusing these sites for infractions.

Other schools, such as Northern Kentucky University and North Carolina State University, have disciplined students after viewing photos online of students drinking alcohol when they are underage or on a dry campus.

Because students aren't necessarily thinking before they post text or photos online, some schools are trying to teach them that online behavior may have consequences — before they've had a chance to make a major mistake. Colleges including the University of Virginia and Western Kentucky University have even incorporated warnings about social-networking sites into their orientation programs.

While universities are concerned about preventing students from breaking the rules and catching them when they do, they are also worried about students' safety. One of administrators' most pressing social-networking concerns is the kind of specific information students readily supply in their Facebook profiles, which includes everything from pictures to dorm-room numbers. A new away-message feature on the site, similar to the one found on AOL Instant Messenger, may give stalkers information as to where a student may be found at any moment.

"Students don't really understand that you're giving someone an open invitation to come find you, whether they have good intentions or not," said Redmon. "They need to realize that just because something is specific to their profile, doesn't mean nobody else is going to look at it. Even if they have the privacy settings turned on, there are ways to get around it."

As Cornell's Mitrano puts it, whether you're talking about safety or breaking the rules, "Behind every device, behind every new program, behind every technology is a law, a social norm, a business practice that warrants thoughtful consideration."