2). This rapid growth and economic success clearly indicate that Facebook is doing something right to attract these numbers of young users and in finding ways to make money from them, but some critics suggest that there are some downsides to this growing popularity that should be recognized by school counselors as well and these issues are discussed further below.
Why Facebook is a "Hot Topic" for School Counselors
Given the rapid proliferation of its use by young people in recent years, the growing popularity of Facebook is an important issue for school counselors at all levels for a number of reasons, including the potential for its use for so-called "cyberbullying," the potential threat of online sexual predators and its misuse by students who exchange information over the medium before, during and after class, among others. For example, according to Bauman and Tatum, "Educators and parents have been alerted to the potential for cyberbullying inherent in these sites" (p. 1). In addition, Bauman and Tatum point out that Facebook, like other social networking sites, has some important benefits that can be used to good advantage by students conducting research as well as helping to grow a valuable set of technology skills that are needed for success in the 21st century, but with hundreds of millions of pages and more being added every day, the potential for young learners to use these resources inappropriately and to their detriment is very real. According to Bauman and Tatum, "These sites have many attractive features and perhaps provide important skills in a technological world (including reading and keyboarding). However, these sites also have elements that may be misunderstood or misused, and it is essential that school counselors understand the benefits and hazards of such sites" (p. 2).
Therefore, it is incumbent upon school counselors to keep track of how these online resources are being used by young people and what they can do to promote a multidisciplinary approach to encouraging young people to use Facebook appropriately, thereby maximizing its known advantages while minimizing or eliminating the potential disadvantages. School counselors, Bauman and Tatum suggest, are on the front lines in this effort:
As school leaders who are central to the school's mission- which includes fostering a positive school climate, fostering positive social and emotional growth, and a focus on positive development-school counselors collaborate with teachers, administrators, parents/caregivers, and the larger community. They are in a central position to provide information and guidance on the advantages and drawbacks of new technology. (2009, p. 2)
Another issue that school counselors need to be aware of concerns the manner in which Facebook is being used by young people. On the one hand, Conner (2009) reports that, "Founded in 2006 by former Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook became a free, image-based utility that relied upon users' thumbnail portraits to secure online social connections. It also embraced multi-media, similar to MySpace, but set itself apart in an attempt to achieve a sense of authenticity within a highly pirated, dishonest, and potentially ominous online environment" (p. 11). On the other hand, though, Choate and Curry (2009) emphasize that, "Many girls post sexual pictures of themselves on blogs or personal Web spaces (Facebook, Myspace, etc.). These online self-presentations may follow cultural trends, but they inadvertently make girls vulnerable to sexual predators. This exposure increases the risk for men to view girls as sexual objects and blurs the lines between appropriate and inappropriate sexual relationships" (p. 213). Likewise, Bauman and Tatum note that, "It is important for school counselors at all levels to be aware that many children falsify their ages and have profiles on these sites. Familiarity with the entire phenomenon of social networking sites is, we believe, a necessary and essential skill for 21st-century school counselors" (2009, p. 2).
Finally, a conversation between two high school teachers recently overheard by this author is reflective of the questions that are emerging concerning how Facebook should be used by educators and students. One teacher asked the other, "Do you think I should make my students 'Friends' on my Facebook page?" Because the designation of another Facebook user as a "Friend" means different things to different users, and the access levels to others' pages typically increase with the "Friend" designation, this is an important question for teachers and school counselors today. By thoroughly understanding how Facebook operates and what their policies and procedures are concerning its use, school counselors will be in a better position to advise their colleagues about these issues. For example, many Facebook users require large numbers of "Friends" playing the same game in order to achieve higher levels in the multiplayer games featured on the site and Facebook makes it easy to recruit additional players for these games. According to Conner, "With small thumbnail portraits juxtaposed with a series of personal facts, users are able to pick and choose their associates with ease. In addition, the use of web-ware applications further permits users to perform digital 'random acts of kindness' toward one another" (p. 12).
These features may be just what is needed by some teachers who want to provide additional tutorial or follow-up services for their students in ways that are mutually convenient and consistent with the educational axiom, "If they are not learning the way I teach, I need to teach the way they learn." In fact, one educator maintains that interacting with students on Facebook is a win-win approach, providing additional educational opportunities both in terms of curriculum content as well as how to use the site appropriately. In this regard, Bowers-Campbell argues that, "The use of Facebook, a widely-used social networking technology, may be helpful in improving low self-efficacy and self-regulated learning by increasing connection with the instructor, increasing social contact with classmates, and providing an opportunity to guide students in their responsible use of Facebook technology" (2008, p. 74).
While these expanded communication features available to Facebook "Friends" might be useful additions to a busy educator's repertoire of teaching tools, the need for discretion is paramount because other Facebook users may be more highly selective in their choice of "Friends," viewing the relationship differently, further clouding the relationship between users, especially adults and minors. In this regard, Conner (2009) notes that, "Facebook [can] represent contacts within one's network as a 'friend,' an association that immediately triggers nostalgia. Individual networks also renew acquaintances, reviving personal histories which had been forgotten, or 'the undead past'" (p. 12).
Similarly, and notwithstanding the need for hundreds of "Friends" on Facebook to advance in certain games, Feinberg (2008) suggests that the "Friend" designation on Facebook should be reserved for individuals who have real-life connections, in some cases intimate ones. According to Feinberg, "There appear to be no strangers on Facebook. Every relationship that Facebook facilitates is purportedly based on a 'real life' connection. Facebook users communicate with 'Friends' with whom they have lived,…