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If a professor is teaching a student currently, is it okay if he/she friends the student on social media sites such as Facebook or Google Plus?

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Hmmm... why not? –  Ran G. May 12 '12 at 16:39
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Pros: you will see when your student is slacking off. Cons: your student will see when you are slacking off. –  Piotr Migdal May 12 '12 at 18:34
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One possible solution: Add him and put him in a "not-sharing-anything" group :P –  Bravo May 12 '12 at 19:14
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I know a senior scientist who married their own PhD student. –  gerrit Jun 7 '12 at 21:55
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@ramanujan_dirac: You make a good point. I've edited the question to replace "Facebook" with "social media sites," since I don't think there's a huge difference between them. –  aeismail Jan 9 '13 at 12:32
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11 Answers

It depends a little on the circumstances, but generally not. If the student is your Ph.D. student, then it's probably OK to accept a friend request, but you shouldn't initiate it (and some people might not even approve of accepting it, depending on the sort of advising relationship you have). If it's an undergraduate in one of your classes, then I don't think you should even accept a friend request, and sending one would be very improper.

There are three basic principles:

  1. You shouldn't put your students in situations where they might feel awkward or uncomfortable. For example, would turning down a friend request from one's professor come across as rude?

  2. It's not healthy for class dynamics if there's a perception that you have a closer, friendlier relationship with some of the students than with others.

  3. You need to be very careful not to do anything that could be misinterpreted (or, worse yet, correctly interpreted) as showing romantic interest. Some people will interpret things that way if it's even vaguely plausible, and fair or not you've got to keep this in mind.

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What if you are actually friends? –  Artem Kaznatcheev May 12 '12 at 18:58
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@Artem: Long-standing friendships (if the professor is a friend of the student's family, or if the professor and student became friends after a previous course) need to be handled as a special case. The principles I've listed are still important, but there's no need to deny the existence of a harmless friendship. On the other hand, developing a new friendship with a student from one's current class is tricky. It's not necessarily bad in principle, but it could look bad or cause unexpected problems. I'd defer it until after the class, and otherwise it needs great professional tact. –  Anonymous Mathematician May 12 '12 at 21:54
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I think it's important to distinguish between "friend on Facebook" and "friend in real life". The former is often a synonym for "I would like to follow your updates"; the latter is where the potential conflicts of interest really arise. –  JeffE May 13 '12 at 5:34
    
And what if you're friends before they take your class? (Or even stickier: What if they take your class because you're friends?) –  JeffE May 13 '12 at 5:36
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...unless their professor doesn't post to academia.edu. –  JeffE May 13 '12 at 15:23
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I would avoid it and refer them to linkedin as an alternative.

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This is a good point. Students sometimes send social media requests just because they would like some sort of connection, and redirecting it to a more professional venue can be valuable. –  Anonymous Mathematician May 12 '12 at 21:55
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I prefer refering them to academia.edu –  Md. Golam Rashed May 13 '12 at 6:33
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LinkedIn is worse - it has no relationship that descripts prof-student, as far as I know. –  Fuhrmanator Oct 28 '12 at 22:30
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There are two simple important rules:

  1. Never initiate a friend request with a student
  2. If you accept a Facebook friend request from a student in a class that you are currently teaching then you must accept friend requests from all students in that class.

Beyond those rules things are more complicated.

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+1 excellent for being consistent 100% agree –  Fuhrmanator Oct 28 '12 at 22:35
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People use Facebook in different ways*). Some are actually spreading links, thoughts and comments related to their professional work.

However: most of the time people are using it for things related to their personal life.

I know examples of TAs, who are FB-friending their students. But most aren't.

So the main question are:

  • do you want them to see your all FB stuff,
  • do you want to see all their stuff,
  • do you call them your friends,
  • and do you want them to call you a friend?

If not, why adding them?

Most likely, it depends highly on:

  • your personal approach to such social networks,
  • your natural contact with your students (if it is formal or even semi-formal, perhaps FB is not the right tool).

Depending on both, it may be either natural, acceptable, improper or really creepy.

*) And also there are different philosophies when it comes to adding friends.

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You're right that it depends on your personal approach to social networks and the sort of contact you have with your students, but it's also important to keep in mind how it might be perceived by others. (Even if you know it is harmless, and the students involved know it is harmless, it could cause difficulties if administrators or other students or faculty disapprove.) –  Anonymous Mathematician May 12 '12 at 23:25
    
"it could cause difficulties if administrators or other students or faculty disapprove": that's true for almost any choices that we are making concerning our way of living, so why bother? –  Sylvain Peyronnet May 13 '12 at 19:15
    
+1 for pointing out the risks –  Fuhrmanator Oct 28 '12 at 22:30
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When facebook was new some PhDs at my university asked everyone to join, so my first "friends" were other academics & PhD students. Immediately that first year undergraduates tried to friend too, so I made a rule: some people do not really want to know your internal state, so they should be put on "limited profile" and not allowed to see your wall. All undergraduates are in this category until at least a year after they graduate.

Since then facebook security has gotten a lot freakier, and also I have gotten older, while grad students by and large haven't. One thing to consider: do you really want to see your graduate students that are not writing their dissertations stories about the on line gaming they do in your facebook feed?

I like to encourage my PhD students to think of themselves as peers, so I friend them like peers if they ask. But if some do & some don't, is that discriminating against the ones who don't? Even if it's their own choice? I don't think so, but it is weird & I am rethinking my policy. But then, I'm always rethinking facebook.

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+1 for pointing out that profs can see grad students are goofing off; facebook security options are powerful but complicated. –  Fuhrmanator Oct 28 '12 at 22:34
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It clearly depends on how you use Facebook, as it says in an earlier comment friend on facebook are not real life friends. I think that is is clear for everyone, so if you have a policy of accepting anyone as facebook friend, and if you have nothing personal on your facebook account, I don't see any problem in having students as facebook friends. For me, facebook friends are no different than linkedin connections or google+ circles members, and I have the same policy for all social networks: I accept almost everybody.

edit: and for really personal matters, I have an additional account, totally anonymous, except for the family and real friends.

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+1 for professors having a consistent policy (to keep it a professional "friend" relationship). Social networking is here to stay. –  Fuhrmanator Oct 28 '12 at 22:32
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I follow 4 rules

  1. I never initiate contact with students or post-docs
  2. I do not accept requests from undergraduates until they graduate
  3. I always accept requests from post-grad students and post-docs
  4. I attempt to never post anything that could cause me problems
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+1 for consistency, but #4 is kind of obvious, even when lecturing –  Fuhrmanator Oct 28 '12 at 22:37
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To second & enlarge upon what Md. Golam Rashed said in a comment: Academia.edu is designed as a networking site for academics (rather than, say, originating in a site where users picked which of two students' photos was "hotter"). So referring any students who approach you on facebook, to Academia.edu instead, would be contextually appropriate, and give you a defensible position that you were linked to them via a site that exists to allow academics to network.

(disclaimer: I have no commercial connection to Academia.edu : I'm simply registered there)

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One should also bear in mind local government rules and/or school policies. For example, recently it was clarified by the New York City Education Department that that public school teachers (so not quite University professors as I think the original question intends) may not contact students through FaceBook (link to New York Times article). It is not inconceivable that similar rules may be put in place by other local governing bodies and/or university regulations.

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It was my understanding that the question targeted only virtual friendship with students aged 18 (or 21) at least. –  Sylvain Peyronnet May 14 '12 at 18:43
    
The nyt article indicates that there are exceptions, acknowledging potentially beneficial uses of social media in education –  Abe May 15 '12 at 2:42
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Is it okay... ?

Sure, but it's not without risks (to BOTH sides).

Whether you're a student or a professor, there are a couple of things to help minimize the risk:

  • Use lists to organize your friends and make sure you put your professors/students on the list you want to restrict information to.

    Scenario A: a grad student is 3 weeks late on a draft, yet the professor can see he's been updating his photo albums of football games for the past three weekends. Scenario B: professor is late at returning grades on the midterm, yet the students can see he's been posting about how fun his weekend bicycle workouts have been. Using lists properly can prevent these awkward situations (but so can not procrastinating!).

    However, even if you put your professors/students on the restricted list, replies you make to posts with Public visibility will be seen by everyone. So, you still have to take a lot of care with this approach at what you say.
  • A less risky (but more distant) approach for professors is to create a Public Figure (Teacher) page. Then, students need only "like" that page to be associated with it. In this case, the relationship is not really bi-directional, which is why the risk is reduced both ways. As a professor, I've tied my Google Blog to a Facebook Teacher page, so that blog updates automatically feed to Facebook. Another advantage is that my "nerdy" posts don't get seen by all the people I'm friends with.

Finally, LinkedIn doesn't have the relationship of student-professor, which I find annoying when I get requests. They're not "classmates" even though a lot of students request a link to me using that relationship. In the beginning, I would refuse connections, unless the relationship involved some kind of professional contract (e.g., a TA or lab assistant, funded research student). It makes sense when a student asks you for a review on LinkedIn if that student "worked" for you in some degree.

However, part of the goal of LinkedIn is to build connections, and coop programs are important for undergrads at my school. Saying I know students (even if they're just in my undergrad courses) might help them somehow.

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There is a difference between being "connected" to someone and being a "friend" on social media tools.

Facebook and the likes connect people together but uses the word "friend" to make this connection look nice and appealing to users. LinkedIn "connects" users on a professional|business level.

I do not believe that a Facebook "connection" should be interpreted as real "friendship" unless you make it happen as such. I have the impression that many of us have lost the true sense of friendship.

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