A Wellington primary school took to monitoring pupils' social media sites after it became "extremely concerned" about their online activity.
In a letter sent home to parents, Karori West Normal School spoke of "appalling examples of chatroom dialogue" that staff discovered on social media sites such as Facebook and ask.fm when a couple of parents asked them for help with their children's internet use.
Principal Janice Shramka told The Dominion Post a "small group" of 11 and 12-year-old pupils then willingly logged into their social network sites in front of staff, revealing "useful information" about many of the school's other pupils.
The letter to parents emphasised the rules about Facebook being only for over-13s and told them to "not bow to peer pressure" in letting their children access the site.
But NetSafe warns that schools accessing pupils' accounts is an "absolute no-no", regardless of their age.
Chief technology officer Sean Lyons said: "The parents feel in some way that some line has been stepped over and schools are saying we have an issue and we want to deal with it. I feel for both parties in this case."
However, it was not acceptable for schools to ask children for their Facebook logins and passwords. That was putting schools "in a potentially difficult position".
He strongly advised children against giving up their passwords or access to anyone. It opened them up to "all sorts of disastrous consequences".
Even the Education Amendment Bill and its inclusion of search and seizure rules was "ambiguous" about a school's rights in accessing things such as Facebook, he said.
"We know that young people are using social network sites when perhaps they shouldn't be."
Ms Shramka said there was "naivety" among pupils about the consequences of material put online.
It would be "wonderful" if the school didn't need to get involved, but it just wanted pupils to become critical thinkers who made good judgments. "Sometimes social media sites don't encourage that."
One parent said she was shocked to be told that not only had her 12-year-old daughter had a Facebook account since she was 9, but the school discovered through her page that she had a boyfriend.
The woman, who did not want to be named because it could identify her daughter, was "computer illiterate" and had no computer of her own to monitor her daughter's online activity.
She thought someone should be policing online age restrictions, but not schools. "I agree children shouldn't be on Facebook under the age of 13, but it's not the school's place to be sorting this out.
"After school and weekends are a family's time, not school's time."
She had consulted a lawyer about whether schools had powers to police pupils' personal social media sites and she knew of other parents doing the same.
Ms Shramka was not aware of any negative feedback from parents. In fact, it had been "rather the reverse. It's great when parents and school can work together to help support our young people."
Former NZEI president Ian Leckie said schools had to monitor pupils' internet activity as it was a shared responsibility between them and parents. "We manage the best we can with the personnel and resources we have."
Christchurch lawyer Kathryn Dalziel, who often works with the privacy commissioner, said the school was within its rights to have a policy for internet use on school IT networks.
"If it's on a child's personal phone or otherwise, that's different. But there's no difficulty with a child of 11 or 12 giving informed consent to them looking."
Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said children's use of social network sites was "a fact of today's world". "Ultimately, the responsibility lies with parents and caregivers to guide their children about appropriate boundaries when it comes to using social networking sites."
He acknowledged that the issue was complex. He said schools could set rules and encourage responsible internet usage while pupils were at school, but they should not unreasonably infringe on pupils' privacy.
Users must be at least 13 before they can create an account. Creating an account with false information is a violation of its terms, including accounts registered on behalf of someone under 13.
Accounts will be deleted if the person is found to be under that age.
Facebook is forbidden by privacy laws from giving unauthorised access to someone who is not an account holder and encourages parents to exercise discretion in overseeing their children's internet use.
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