Facebook not a grown-up playground

By Vanessa Valensuela
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, January 20, 2006

"So, ladies, I saw that there are some pretty interesting photos of you all on that Facebook Web site." These words - spoken not by a friend or fellow student, but by my landlord - ushered in a wave of dread. Panic-stricken, I attempted to recall every note on my profile's wall and every picture I had posted from recent date dashes and parties.

When the popularity of www.facebook.com mushroomed last year and students across the nation began adding profiles at staggering rates, the biggest concern was parents' fear of cyber-stalking.

Now that students have grown accustomed to posting every detail of their lives, from the mundane to the torrid, on their profiles, they need to show a little more restraint. On many profiles, discretion takes a back seat to showing off Thursday night's killer keg stand or commenting on Friday night's hook up.

The sense of community created by Facebook and the assumption that only fellow students are able to access profiles have created for many a blasť attitude about posting comments or pictures of themselves being "college kids."

However, students must keep in mind that university e-mail addresses are not limited to undergraduate students; a variety of other people have access to their Facebook profiles, including administrators, faculty members and the University of Arizona Police Department.

It has taken the use of Facebook comments and photos as evidence in cases brought by administrators and police to remind students that the Facebook is accessible to the public, making its content fair game for use in legal disputes.

For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently instituted a policy permitting disciplinary action if staff members come across Facebook photos showing students violating school policy. Police at Pennsylvania State University have been scouring Facebook profiles in an attempt to identify and charge students who broke the law by rushing the field after Penn State's win over Oregon State University.

At George Washington University, students took it upon themselves to prove that university police were using the Facebook to find and break up parties. They created a "Beer Party" on the Facebook and waited, digital cameras in hand, for police to arrive. When squad cars rolled up, police found students sipping punch and downing cupcakes frosted with the word "beer."

As similar cases pop up around the country, students must face the fact that their profile content may be accessible to a much wider audience than they had anticipated.

The fact that there are e-mail registration requirements set by Facebook doesn't necessarily mean that this wider audience only stretches to include those affiliated with the university; it isn't hard for those who would like to view a profile to simply find someone they know with access (as was the case with my landlord, who had his daughter sign him in so he could check up on his tenants).

Some campus organizations have recognized how accessible the profiles of their student members are and have attempted to remind students to keep information in the public domain somewhat professional. Cherilyn Gain, a student team leader for the Arizona Blue Chip Program, said the leadership organization has discussed incorporating a workshop for its freshmen on how to present themselves professionally on the Facebook.

Blue Chip is not alone: UA Residence Life has also tackled the issue. "As resident assistants, we were encouraged to keep our Facebook profiles appropriate to serve as a good example for our residents," said Kyle Tiemeier, a senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology and resident assistant at Yuma Residence Hall.

Patrick Call, associate director of residential education, confirmed that all RAs are asked to sign an agreement that states that they will "use Internet and computer-related communication, including Facebook, appropriately." He said that content referring to alcohol use, even for those of age, is highly discouraged, as it detracts from RAs' status as role models.

When asked, many students on campus said they were not surprised to hear about Facebook-related entanglements with administrators and police. However, many others admitted they were clueless as to the possible consequences of careless posting.

Facebook administrators have done their part by introducing new privacy settings that give users control over which parts of their profiles are viewable by the public. It is up to students at this point to wise up to the less-than-exclusive online community and exercise some caution when tending to their profiles.

After all, would you really want a future employer or a professor with a great research opportunity to come across Facebook pictures from last year's spring break?

Vanessa Valenzuela is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.