The Ethicist Gets it Right with “A Facebook Teaching Moment”

I’m a big fan of the New York Times Magazine‘s weekly column, The Ethicist. I’m not a big fan, however, of the column’s namesake, Randy Cohen. He is often much too consequentialist for my liking, too simplistic is his ethical analyses, and his attempts to include humor in his responses typically fail (and are an unnecessary distraction from often very interesting ethical dilemmas).

That said, Cohen got it right this week. In an entry titled “A Facebook Teaching Moment”, the scenarior is about a teacher who has been “friended” by a number of her students Facebook, and subsequently gains access to tibits about their lives, including “the inevitable under-age drinking and drug use and occasional school-related mischief like cheating on tests or plagiarizing assignments.” The question posed to Cohen is whether the teacher has an obligation to report any of these activities to the school, the police or the parents of the students.

Cohen says no, the teacher should engage with the students and turn this into a teaching momement about privacy and online social networks. Importantly, Cohen recognizes that just because the students “friended” the teacher, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any expectations of privacy within the social networking context:

Strictly speaking, when these students gave her access to their Facebook pages, they waived their right to privacy. But that’s not how many kids see it. To them, Facebook and the like occupy some weird twilight zone between public and private information, rather like a diary left on the kitchen table. That a photo of drunken antics might thwart a chance at a job or a scholarship is not something all kids seriously consider. This teacher can get them to think about that.

Well done, Ethicist.


  1. I think that’s the way to make sense of it: they trusted her into their social cycles so she can’t break this trust by simply reporting it. would she have reported a private talk based on trust confessing all of this to her or letting her see this activity? i think that is the metaphor. on the same subject, you might like this:

  2. Strickly speaking… they did not waive their right to anyone. They merely added someone into a circle of trust that they thought would preserve their privacy. To think adding someone to your list, makes it public is… nonsense. If you tell something to your wife does it make it public? if she tells it to her friends does it make it public? neither. It becomes public when you share it with everyone indiscriminately. The binarization of something that is not contextual, but communal or personal is pretty … how do the kids say these days… FAIL.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s