The unstoppable rise of social media has resulted in countless headlines over the past few years, both in and out of the workplace. Whether it be tweeting an *innocent face* or a breeding ground for salacious gossip, the use of social media - and particularly Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) - has become entrenched in our everyday lives.

Twitter now has more than 500 million registered users worldwide generating around 500 million unregulated tweets per day. Facebook has more than 1.1 billion active users worldwide (and an Oscar winning film under its belt).

With statistics like these, there is more than a chance that a large proportion of the school community will be sharing their lives, thoughts, photos, videos and opinions with anyone who shows the slightest interest. Establishing clear guidelines and parameters for the use of social media within the school environment is, therefore, crucial. However, schools' social media policies vary widely, with some schools not having a policy at all to others having clearly defined rules in this area which include, for example, a prohibition on teachers becoming friends with pupils on Facebook.

According to a recent study, more than 1 in 10 teachers accused of misconduct last year had used social networking sites and email to establish inappropriate relationships with pupils.

The use of social networking sites in cases of cyber-bullying is also increasing. According to statistics released by the NSPCC in November 2011, 38% of young people have been affected by cyber-bullying.

Statistics such as these mean that the benefits of using social media may be overlooked. However, the growing trend presents a unique opportunity to put across a positive image of a school in the local community as well as providing an efficient way of sharing information, knowledge and best practice with teachers, parents, pupils and governors.

Used properly by schools, social media can provide positive and valuable ways of enhancing teaching methods, information sharing and marketing processes. For example, Facebook could be used to share information with parents about school trips or to follow the progress of a particular sports team's tour.

But as well as opportunities there are a growing number of unique challenges presented by social media. For example, legal liabilities can arise from the use of social media by members of staff (whether related to the school community or in private) or indeed, in some cases, by pupils. Social media may also be used by cyber-bullies and both pupils and staff alike could potentially be the victims of cyber-bullying from other members of the school community. It is important, therefore, for schools to understand this developing area, know where problems may develop and how far they should go in regulating activities relating to social media use by members of the school community.

From a school's perspective, the key risks relate to:

Inappropriate behaviour by employees. Staff policies should clearly outline what is and is not acceptable and should prohibit staff from becoming friends with pupils from personal Facebook pages.

Confidential information. It is the school's responsibility to ensure that employees are alert to the risks of posting confidential information online. This may relate to other employees, but could also extend to pupil and parent confidentiality and intellectual property.

Discrimination. Anti- discrimination laws can hold schools 'vicariously' liable for discrimination by their employees. Where comments are made about another employee online that amount to harassment, liability can arise for the school, whether or not the employee is using the school's equipment or even outside of the workplace and normal working hours.

To avoid liability, a school should do whatever is reasonably practicable to ensure that appropriate policies and training are in place to manage and regulate - wherever possible – online behaviour both in and out of the workplace.

Recruitment. There is little doubt that as our online profiles develop, both personally and professionally, research by both candidates and recruiters will be carried out online. Given the types of information typically found on social networking websites, a claim of discrimination is a real prospect if such information is used to reject a candidate for a job. While a job applicant's sexuality or personal beliefs would not usually be included in their CV, employers can now gain access to such information at the click of a mouse. But if this information is used and it comes to light, there may be the opportunity for a rejected candidate to raise a successful claim of discrimination.

The extent and nature of online enquiries should be fair and proportionate and rarely relied on as the principal or only reason for rejecting, or accepting a candidate.

Data protection during employment. During employment, there is a requirement for employees to be told when and how online information will be viewed and used. Training on data protection generally should ensure that employees understand that it is not appropriate to disclose personal data relating to their colleagues on social media without their permission.

Loss of productivity. Access to social media on the school's equipment in the school's time can lead to reduced productivity. Even if internet use by employees is permitted outside of working hours, policies should be very clear on how they will be implemented, regulated, monitored and, where necessary, enforced.

Loss of reputation. It is not surprising that a school will want to protect its reputation and brand image. But this is difficult to manage when the internet encourages contributors to complain and vent their opinions. Damage to reputation is very difficult to substantiate and should be dealt with on a case by case basis considering the circumstances, the damage (if any) caused and the individuals concerned.

Privacy. A school's desire to protect itself may also put it at odds with an employee's human rights of privacy and freedom of expression. If a school were to dismiss an employee in breach of his or her human rights, the dismissal could be disproportionate and ultimately unfair.

In most employment contexts, proportionality and fairness are key considerations when disciplining an employee for what has been done or reported. But as with anything else, a fair and reasonable investigation will be essential and should always be coupled with a transparent procedure.

Regardless of whether your school actively embraces and uses social media or simply wants to protect itself and its employees from liability, it is sensible – if not essential – to have a social media policy in place. This can be a stand alone policy or incorporated into a wider email and internet usage policy or existing Staff Handbook.

Staff who use social media as part of the school's strategic marketing, public relations, corporate communications and pupil or staff recruiting activities should be provided with additional formal guidance so that they can use an appropriate tone when commenting via social media platforms, on brand and avoid saying the wrong thing.

Adopting appropriate social media policies

A staff social media policy should:

  • send a clear signal about the school's expectations for employee use of social media;
  • remind employees that social media activity in the workplace is not necessarily private;
  • inform employees that online conduct harmful to the school can amount to misconduct or in some cases gross misconduct;include appropriate restrictions covering: use of school IT resources, use of school intellectual property assets and confidential and privileged information, use and protection of third-party intellectual property, strict prohibition on discrimination and the harassment or bullying of other employees, strict prohibition on becoming friends with pupils, prohibition on negative comments about the school, its employees, pupils, parents, governors and other members of the school community, ensure the social media policy is consistent with other staff policies including any bullying and harassment policy, email and internet policy and disciplinary procedures; and
  • avoid imposing unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions which cannot be realistically enforced and can undermine employee morale and invite non- compliance, without real benefit to the school in terms of protecting its property, reputation or pupils.

Pupil rules, policies and procedures should also deal with and address the use of social media. For example, the school's bullying and harassment policy for pupils should make it clear that cyber-bullying is not acceptable and provide a clear channel for reporting any instances of this. The school's safeguarding policy should also alert members of the school community to the dangers of inappropriate social media use and highlight what to look out for in terms of potential abuse. Rules for safe IT use should also cover the use of social media.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.