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...the ethical implications of Facebook in education

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers”

What is this site about?

Facebook’s reach into our society is unique in scale: 1.94 billion monthly active users (March, 2017), and with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp it accounts for 77 percent of mobile social traffic. As a result, Facebook has come to be regarded as a public utility – this is not the case however. In learning and teaching contexts in particular, whether it is used officially or otherwise, Facebook’s business model raises a number of important questions.

The formal definition of ethics will typically relate to a moral sense of good and bad as practiced by a person, or a group of people. However, real world scenarios are rarely simple and we frequently encounter instances involving competing principles or values that are difficult to clearly label as good or bad, right or wrong. For the purposes of this site, values refers to a set of standards that are felt to be important. Therefore the ethical question here is really about how we assess, and express these values.

This site is intended as an accessible and easy to understand guide enabling visitors to draw their own conclusions about the appropriateness of Facebook in education; primarily focused on higher education contexts. References to professional literature are included for those who wish to investigate further. Similarly, all online resources are linked directly. Readers may also find the Resources page of interest.

The following sections frame the subject under three main headings: Privacy (relating to personal privacy), Support (considering a holistic approach to student support), and Data (concerning the data profiling practices at Facebook).


What is Privacy?

In 1962, the Special Committee on Science and Law (established by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York in 1959) began its investigation into the impact of modern technology on privacy. Alan Westin was assigned research director for the project, which is widely regarded as the first significant study of consumer data privacy and protection. Westin later published the influential text Privacy and Law (1967) where he argues that privacy provides individuals in society: personal autonomy (power to define the core self), emotional release (from the pressure of playing social roles), time for self-evaluation (an essential part of creativity), and protected communication. [0] Four decades later, Lew McCreary (then a Senior Editor of Harvard Business Review) published an article entitled What Was Privacy? (note the question is in the past tense) where he suggests (as a starting point) that privacy is partly a form of self-possession—custody of the facts of one’s life, from strings of digits to tastes and preferences. It is assumed that we each have a common understanding of privacy and all its dimensions, yet a strict definition is difficult to find. Privacy is a social practice; a series of decisions that disclose who we are, and each act of sharing forms part of a dynamic relationship. The anthropologist Genevieve Bell and computer scientist Paul Dourish suggest a compelling view of the topic: It is impossible, we contend, to talk coherently about privacy without also talking about trust, secrecy, risk, danger, lies, control, security, identity, morality, and power. [1]

Freedom to Perform

At the core of this debate is our personal autonomy and the maintenance of our ability to self-determine; that deep, universal human need for autonomy and a feeling of control. Research conducted by Pew in the U.S. in 2015 highlighted that more than 90% of people felt it was important that they were in control of their personal information. Our behaviour online however appears to be inconsistent with our expressed views (referred to as a Privacy Paradox); we want more privacy/control and yet we seem quite happy revealing information online. How can this be? We might point to: the deliberate obfuscation of how online services truly operate through lengthy privacy policies wrapped in complicated legal language (Facebook’s transitional privacy policy has resulted in a normalisation of public status); or to the use of natural sounding metaphors like the Cloud, which masks how the Internet works; or to the absence of any feedback on the actual value of the data we provide. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has stated that privacy is no longer a “social norm”.

Privacy versus Security

Privacy tends to be conflated with security in an either/or relationship, however, this is an inaccurate representation of the relationship. Similarly, privacy is not about hiding things; as already mentioned, it is about managing what we share with others. The American cryptographer Bruce Schneier highlights that often the debate is characterized as “security versus privacy.” This simplistic view requires us to make some kind of fundamental trade-off between the two: in order to become secure, we must sacrifice our privacy and subject others to surveillance… It’s a false trade-off… Framing the conversation as trading security for privacy leads to lopsided evaluations.” [2]

The Education Perspective

Let us consider the context in which learning takes place as the environment; this in turn combines both physical and networked resources. Within the learning environment, students, educators, and information mutually reinforce each other. Therefore, a learning culture emerges from, and is defined by the environment. [3] We acknowledge that networked applications and digital media enable a valuable melting pot for both personal (the student) and collective (the group, class, course) perspectives. As noted by Danah Boyd, teens are passionate about finding their place in society. What is different as a result of social media is that teens’ perennial desire for social connection and autonomy is now expressed in ‘networked publics.’ Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. [4] In short, young people utilise the latest technologies for primarily social reasons, for example, sharing information, and meeting each other.

In 1983, Richard Clark published a study investigating possible learning benefits from employing any specific medium to deliver instruction. He states that instructional media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition. It is not that Clark felt media selection was irrelevant, but more that the effectiveness of the learning is determined primarily by the way the medium is used and by the quality of the accompanying instruction. [5] Further meta-analyses by Hattie (2008) [6] and Hew and Cheung (2013) [7] confirm Clark’s view highlighting positive learning effects through a combination of good teaching and technology application. While today’s ubiquitous software landscape might suggest that students will more readily seek out and engage with screen-driven experiences, as it turns out, human interaction remains central to education. A study by the Canadian Higher Education Strategy Associates, which surveyed 1,380 students across 60 Canadian universties, noted that students preferred “ordinary, real life” lessons rather than the use of technology. [8]One final but important point is that education is fundamentally about making and learning from mistakes. The ability to correct or update views/actions in a safe and secure environment is imperative. For young people in particular, where personal identities are evolving, and new thinking is in the process of being crystallised, freedom of expression is central to their personal development. No permanent record should exist – this is discussed further in the Data section below. Thanks in part to the myth of the digital native (an idea widely rejected by studies into the subject) educators may be overlooking the need for further development of our young people’s digital skills. Hannifin and Hill (2007) warn us that while technology has been lauded for potentially democratising access to information, educational use remains fraught with issues of literacy, misinterpretation, and propagandising. [9]



As we’ve seen, students employ the latest technologies for primarily social reasons. It is clear that discussing ideas, concepts, and aspriations with peers outside of class forms an important mentoring component, which is central to long-term student success.

In parallel, with many students commuting to and from campus, or working part time, coupled with increasing demands on teaching staff, an innovative approach to communications is required. Within this communications vortex students utilise Messenger, which Facebook may be reading (Facebook recently settled a class-action in California relating to this) and/or Facebook Groups, effectively outsourcing essential communications infrastructure. This can in turn blur the divide between formal and informal education and the professional and social lives of students and staff. Hence we find increasing tension around work life balance as noted by Kent and Leaver (2014). [10]

Millions of people utilise social media platforms to connect with friends and family. The average Facebook user spends 50 minutes per day on the platform. From Facebook’s perspective, time is a measure of engagement that correlates with service effectiveness. Network effects apply as the value of the service is directly related to the number of people using the application. The more time visitors spend on the platform, the more data they generate about themselves. This in turn enables Facebook to fine tune the content (posts from friends, family, interest groups and, of course, advertising) that visitors interact with; effectively completing the engagement loop. We might then wonder if all this time invested in the platform is healthy? Researchers agree that social ties promote mental health and well-being in the physical domain. [11] However, the use of social networking applications appears to be inversely linked to quality of life, for example, reduced engagement in meaningful face-to-face activities, and increased sedentary behaviour. [12] Our online selves present a highly curated view of reality. [13] Using Facebook makes you more comparative, that is, you compare yourself to others more often and make judgements like: am I better or worse than my friends? Am I happier? Are they happier? Research highlights that comparing oneself with others in the context of social media may place individuals at risk of negative mental health outcomes. [14] [15] [16] More generally, it is possible that smartphones are enabling self-avoidance; an inability to sit alone with our own thoughts, reflecting on the past and the future. (A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in the year 2000.) Harm is then caused through a reduction in self-knowledge. As the philosopher Alain de Botton notes: Striving to be more interesting than another’s smartphone is a battle we should gracefully accept as lost. A recent longitudinal study by Shakya and Christakis assessed 5,208 subjects over a two year period with a view to investigating changes in well-being over time with respect to the use of Facebook. In their own words, our results showed that overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being. [17] A 2016 study at the University of Copenhagen that involved 1,095 people, half of whom were asked to continue using Facebook while the remaining half abstained from logging in, concluded that quitting Facebook led to higher levels of well-being.

We should also consider the role of education in supporting the development of the individual through the process of individuation. Here we seek to establish our true authentic self by differentiating from one another. In terms of mental well-being, the process is essential and assumes a level of privacy. Aboujaoude (2011) notes you are a psychologically autonomous individual if you have the option to keep your personhood to yourselfHowever with so much of our “facts” now readily available online for anyone to consult, control over our personal business has become a chimeric goal. [18] 


Facebook’s Data Policy is clear: We collect the content and other information you provide when you use our Services… We also collect content and information that other people provide when they use our Services, including information about you… We collect information about the people and groups you are connected to and how you interact with them, such as the people you communicate with the most or the groups you like to share with. The business model is centred around the monetisation of attention where feature after feature–designed to exploit evolutionary biology–keeps visitors locked-in; and the more people are engaged, the more data they provide to the platform, which is in turn quantified, analysed, and sold. Bruce Schneier (2016) notes that surveillance is the business model of the Internet for two primary reasons: people like free, and people like convenient. The truth is, though, that people aren’t given much of a choice… Free warps our normal sense of cost vs. benefit, and people end up trading their personal data for less than its worth. [2]

With access to such vast datasets, Facebook is in a unique position to shape the realities of its users. In a rare interview in 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg highlighted that at any given point in time, there isn’t just one version of Facebook running, there are probably 10,000. Any engineer at the company can basically decide that they want to test something. In its widely reported emotional manipulation study, Facebook showed that it was possible to influence people’s moods in precise, predictable ways by putting certain words into the posts they see on Facebook. [19] In May of 2017 the technology publication Ars Technica reported on a leaked document from Facebook Australia. In the document, Facebook executives appear to promote advertising campaigns that exploit Facebook users’ (including children as young as 14 years old) emotional states, pinpointing moments when young people need a confidence boostThe Facebook New Feed is not chronological, it is instead driven by an algorithm. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t being entirely honest when he presents himself as a critic of algorithms: every product you use is better off with your friends. Facebook’s algorithms sort the thousands of things a Facebook user could possibly see down to a smaller batch of choice items. And then within those few dozen items, it decides what we might like to read first. Cathy O’Neil highlights, while Facebook may feel like a modern town square, the company determines, according to its own interests, what we see and learn on its social network. [20]

The American internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis has noted that Facebook has the track record for being the least trustworthy company in Silicon Valley. In  2016, Facebook admitted to overestimating the average viewing time for video adverts for two years. Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group, estimated that Facebook inflates the numbers its adverts reach by at least 10 million. In parallel, Facebook’s reluctance to share relevant data related to Russian hacking during the US elections has added to concerns about its credibility.

Under Facebook’s terms of service, which can change at any time, by posting content (text, image, video) on the platform, a perpetual license is automatically granted to that content such that Facebook can in turn license your content to others at no charge and without obtaining approval from you. Irrespective of the particular platform, we should all try to read the terms set out by these companies. It is also worth noting that even if you delete your content from Facebook, it may be impossible to actually delete the content from Facebook’s servers as the data will be retained within backups; again from Facebook’s terms: when you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others). There is no delete in the world of data.


Final Thought

Data privacy online is a complex and controversial issue. Kincaid and Pecorino (2005) argue that in education contexts, due to the imbalance in knowledge and experience between teacher and student, an element of paternalism is necessary. Students implicitly trust institutions to determine the curriculum and all applicable standards. [21] 

The exploitation of personal information is now a multi-billion dollar industry involving thousands of companies. Much of this activity is invisible to us, and therefore the full extent of digital tracking is generally unknown by the public. The digital rights activist Wolfie Christl provides a detailed analysis of the extent to which the personal information of billions of people is collected, analysed, and sold. Not surprisingly, there are mounting concerns about the ethical implications of this activity. Solove (2013) suggests that we need to reconsider consent around the disclosure of personal data as current systems do not provide meaningful control, and make it difficult to accurately weigh cost versus benefit. [22]

For educators and institutions, one of the key questions as highlighted by Hack (2015) is that if we ask students to utilise services like Facebook as part of their studies, are we then complicit in exposing them to digital tracking? [23] Do we then become agents of surveillance capitalism and open our students up to the potential privacy harms created over the duration of their time learning with us? Grimmelmann (2008) notes that Facebook offers a socially compelling platform that also facilitates peer-to-peer privacy violations: users harming each others’ privacy interests. [24] In terms of an approach for educators, informed guidance is key. Chris Gilliard (2017) suggests the fact that the web functions the way it does is illustrative of the tremendously powerful economic forces that structure it. Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make visible the effects of surveillance capitalism. It means more clearly defining and empowering the notion of consent. Most of all, it means envisioning, with students, new ways to exist online. 


“The right strategy is to focus on connecting the people before aggressively turning them into businesses”

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook Inc.


0. Westin, A. (1967). Privacy and Freedom.  New York: Atheneum

1. Dourish, P. & Bell, G. (2011). Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press

2. Schneier, B. (2016). Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. New York, USA: W. W. Norton & Company.

3. Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Charleston, USA: Self-published. Printed by CreateSpace

4. Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press

5. Clark, R.E. (1983) ‘Reconsidering Research on Learning From Media’, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53, No. 4. pp. 445-459.

6. Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge

7. Hew, K.F. & Cheung, W.S. (2013) ‘Use of Web 2.0 technologies in K-12 and higher education: The search for evidence-based practice’, Educational Research Review, vol. 9, June, pp. 47-64.

8. Bullen. M. (2011) ‘Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue’, Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, vol. 37, no. 1

9. Hannafin, M.J. & Hill, J. (2007).  Resource-based learning. In: Spector, M.J., Merrill, M.D., Van Merrienboer, J. & Driscoll, M.P., (Eds), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology. Mahwah, NJ, USA: Erlbaum

10. Kent, M. & Leaver, T. (2014). An Education in Facebook?: Higher Education and the World’s Largest Social Network. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

11. Kawachi, I. & Berkman, L.F., (2001) ‘Social Ties and Mental Health’,  Journal of Urban Health, vol. 78, no. 3, September, pp. 458-67.

12. Leung, L. & Lee, P.S.N. (2004) ‘Multiple determinants of life quality: the roles of Internet activities, use of new media, social support, and leisure activities’,  Journal of Telematics and Informatics,vol.  22, no. 3, August, pp. 161-180.

13. Nadkarni, A. & Hofmann, S.G. (2012) ‘Why Do People Use Facebook?’ Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 52, no. 3, February, pp. 243-249.

14. Feinstein, B.A., Hershenberg, R., Bhatia, V., Latack, J.A., Meuwly, N. & Davila, J. (2013) ‘Negative social comparison on Facebook and depressive symptoms: Rumination as a mechanism’, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 2, no. 3, July, pp. 161-170.

15. Appel, H., Gerlach, A.L. & Crusius, J. (2016) ‘The interplay between Facebook use, social comparison, envy, and depression’, Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 9, June, pp. 44-49.

16. Arad, A., Barzilay, O. & Perchick, M. (2017) ‘The Impact of Facebook on Social Comparison and Happiness: Evidence from a Natural Experiement’, Available at SSRN:

17. Shakya, H.B. & Christakis, N.A. (2017) ‘Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study’, American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 185, no. 3, February, pp. 203-211.

18. Aboujaoude, E. (2011). Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality. New York, USA: W. W. Norton & Company.

19. Kramer, A.D.I., Guillory, J.E. & Hancock, J.T. (2014) ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 24, June, pp. 8788-8790.  

20. O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York, USA: Crown Publishing Group 

21. Kincaid, S. & Pecorino, P. (2005). The Profession of Education: Responsibilities, Ethics and Pedagogic Experimentation. Online at:

22. Solove, D. (2013). Introduction: Privacy self-management and the consent dilemma. In 126 Harvard Law Review, 1880, (p. 1882), Available at SSRN:

23. Hack, C. (2015). Applying learning analytics to smart learning
— ethics and policy In: Middleton, A. ed. Smart Learning – teaching and learning with smartphones and tablets. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Hallam University, pp. 57-62

24. Grimmelmann, J. (2008). ‘Saving Facebook’, NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08/09-7; Iowa Law Review, Vol. 94, p. 1137, 2009. Available at SSRN:


Source of image: Adam Fagen

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