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4 Social Media Blunders

Gloria Gadsden, from East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, was temporarily suspended that same year for posting, "Does anyone know where I can find a discreet hit man? Yes, it's been that kind of day" and "had a good day today, DIDN'T want to kill even one student :-). Now Friday was a different story." Gadsden thought the posts would only be viewable by her family and friends-but one of her students saw the post and reported it.

Do an online search for "social media blunders," and you'll find a slew of examples of major slip-ups-often resulting in legal calamity. People everywhere-including the courts-are still figuring out the rules of the social media game. Unfortunately, not understanding the basic rules can get a person into seriously hot water.

Social media isn't a bad thing; it's a vital tool for the church to use as it builds and cares for its 21st-century community. Through Facebook and Twitter I now know more about the families in my church than I was ever able to know in the past. I know when kids are sick, when a pet died, and when the team won the baseball game. This information connects us-I get to share in these experiences. I've stepped outside the church building and into their homes. That's the power of social media.

Your church or ministry likely has a Facebook page or Twitter profile. Many churches have social media pages for individual ministries. In most cases, the responsibility for the children's ministry's social media is in the hands of the children's minister.

There are pitfalls in social media that can have legal ramifications for your children's ministry. Other risks may include damaging your church or ministry's name in your community. We can't hide from the dangers related to social media, but we can be wise about how we use it. Jesus' words in Matthew 10:16 are a good motto: "Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves."

It's critical that you and your team understand the following four major social media pitfalls that can trap your ministry. Study these carefully with your team-along with the tips for creating effective practices to increase your effectiveness while safeguarding your ministry.

PITFALL 1:

Invading Families' Privacy
According to attorney Richard Hammar, founder of Church Law and Tax Report, churches must be wary of how much information they release-especially in the context of posting prayer requests online. Releasing medical diagnoses or even basic personal health information can potentially constitute an invasion of privacy-no matter how well-intentioned. Even if the church avoids a lawsuit, the resulting damage to the church's trustworthiness will be catastrophic.

Safeguard 1: Create a social media privacy policy. Every church needs a social media policy for its staff and volunteer teams. This policy provides the framework for how to engage the world online. Include a section specific to the social media privacy policy in your children's ministry manual and train your teams on it. Don't limit the policy to paid staff. Volunteers represent your church online with each interaction they engage in.

Policies vary from church to church, but there are great resources online to guide you in creating a policy that fits your ministry. Justin Wise, a church social media expert, has gathered a number of policies from churches and posted them on his blog, justinwise.net. And Inc.com also has a guide for creating a policy that's easy and free to access.

Posting Videos or Pictures Without Prior Consent
Pictures are an integral part of any social network. But before you begin snapping photos with your smartphone on Sunday mornings-understand the risks.

"Each individual owns his or her likeness or other identifiable characteristic," notes Frank Sommerville on churchsafety.com. This means that a church can't post a person's picture without consent. Sommerville points out that if churches use pictures for promotional purposes, then the courts would likely find that the church used the images commercially. Even pictures taken by volunteers can land the church in trouble in court. Legally, church services and events are considered private and don't fit under exemptions that cover images taken in public venues.

Safeguard 2: Get permission before posting anything. It's tempting to overlook this step when there's a really great moment happening on the children's church stage and you want that picture. Don't. Posting a child's photo to a public site without permission can damage trust and put kids at risk. Take the picture, but don't post it until you have written consent from everyone included in the image to use the picture online. If the parents refuse, don't post it at all, even to your own personal Facebook page, website, or email.

Some churches have begun posting signs at the front door alerting people that by entering the building they're giving consent to the church to use their image. This frees ministries to post photos without having to obtain written consent. However, if a parent asks to have a picture taken down, comply immediately. And don't be tempted to forgo a signed consent form. You're wise to include this as part of your registration package for each child and adult in your ministry. For a sample photo consent form, go to Web Exclusives at childrensministry.com.

PITFALL 3:

Releasing Information Identifying Someone
Imagine that you're watching a group of kids from your ministry sing at their elementary school. You pull out your smartphone and take a picture with Instagram. You then upload with the comment, "Watching Morgan and Kylie sing in the 2nd grade choir at Oak Road Elementary!"

You've just potentially violated the privacy of those minors (think legal issues or custody disputes).
Another potential danger of identifying kids is that predators are known to search social media sites for children's personal information. Leaving any identifying information about kids on a public profile, website, or even in an email that can be forwarded puts children at risk because anyone can view, share, or forward the information and image.

Safeguard 3: Take extra precautions with personal information. Posting identifiable information is especially dangerous when it comes to minors. Identifiable information includes current locations, addresses, phone numbers, emails, first and last names, ages, schools, and more. Churches must obtain written permission before posting any of those details, and even then it's not a good idea. Facebook pages are by nature public. Emails can be forwarded. Websites can be viewed by anyone with Internet access. So ensure that information you post has been okayed and placed in a suitable public arena with precautions to prevent kids from being individually identified. A rule of thumb is to never tag kids in photos and never identify a specific child by name. For instance, don't caption photos with things such as, "From left to right: Alex, Denise, Carly, and Marcus."

PITFALL 4:

Posting Copyrighted Photos or Videos

Many children's ministries like to post information about the previous week's lesson on their Facebook page or Twitter feed. This helps parents keep in touch with what kids are learning. I've seen many churches post worksheets or take-home pages on their Facebook page. If the children's ministry created this curriculum and all the accompanying graphics (or paid for or got permission for their usage from the publisher), then there's no issue. However, posting worksheets from curriculum that you've purchased likely violates the copyright of that curriculum. The same pitfall applies to uploading videos or pictures from a purchased curriculum to YouTube or Facebook.

Safeguard 4: Share from publisher's sites or get permission. Posting great resources to Facebook and Twitter enables kids to learn at home and helps reach families. So it's important to know what you can and can't post. Most curriculum companies provide a copyright page that stipulates fair usage. If you don't have the rights to post something, there are legal ways around the obstacle. For music and video, look for the curriculum publisher's official YouTube or Vimeo channel. If they have one, then you can embed those videos on your Facebook page's wall using the sites' share functions. For handouts, simply call or email the publisher and ask permission to post worksheets. Not every publisher will agree, but most will work with you. Whatever you do, don't assume posting without permission is okay.

Falling into one of these social media pitfalls can have a lasting impact on your children's ministry. And this list isn't exhaustive, nor does it take into consideration new threats that'll arise as social media platforms mature. Remain on the lookout for new concerns, keep up with evolving privacy laws, and be aware of changing trends. Knowing what to avoid-and educating your team-will go far in keeping your kids and ministry safe. The concerns, though, shouldn't keep children's ministers away from social media. Its value in building relationships within your ministry makes it one of your most effective tools. cm

Dwayne Riner (creativekidmin.com) is the creative and curriculum director at The Ark Church in Conroe, Texas.

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