“How should professionals or volunteers working with young people use Facebook?”
There is no answer to that question. Or at least, no answer that doesn’t start with a fairly long list of ‘It depends’.
I often show this slide when talking about the need for clear policies in organisations that support staff to make effective use of social media:
The slide was prepared (and I always introduce it in this context) based on work exploring how Social Network Sites can be used by Youth Workers.
Almost always I get an interjection at this point in the presentation from a teacher or other youth-sector professional criticising the way this guidance suggests that workers may be interacting directly with young people online, when surely that can never be appropriate.
To which I have to re-emphasise that this guidance is specific to a youth work setting. It’s based on youth work values and, fundamentally, on an attempt to understand how different youth work relationships between young people and adults transfer into the online environment.
It is perhaps because of the centrality of ‘relationship’ in youth work theory that drives me towards stating this, but it seems far more useful to switch from the question ‘How should [teachers/youth workers/probation workers/sports coaches] use Facebook?’ to the question ‘Given the existing professional relationships between young people and their [teachers/youth workers/probation workers/etc.] offline, what would be appropriate for their interaction through [Facebook/Bebo/MySpace/any other social network]?’
Ewan McIntosh has been exploring again recently his belief that direct interaction by teachers with children and young people through Facebook or other social networks is not appropriate, and my intuitive sense of the teacher-pupil relationship suggests that Ewan is right. When it comes to a youth participation worker exploring social networks for engagement, then using Facebook might be appropriate, but a direct friend-relationship with young people may not be. Use of Facebook pages and groups may provide a means of engagement more analogous to offline participation relationships.
With a number of authorities and organisations development organisation-wide social media policies, emphasising the specificity of different workforces is more important than ever.
We need to always start from the specifics. From what a particular form of work involves, from the professional values involved, and from the relationships with young people (or others) before developing guidance, policy and practice. Rather than imposing top-down technology policy and strategy.