Twitter is being used as a teaching tool at primary schools across the country but some parents are concerned about the appropriateness for children. The social media platform is currently being used by Year 5 and 6 classes at more than 200 schools as part of a literacy initiative called Chapter Chat.
Participating classes read the same book and post comments and pictureson their class Twitter account. Other classes following the accounts can see and comment on what's posted online.
Ian Marriot, a parent at Auckland's Warkworth Primary, said he received a general newsletter from his 9-year-old daughter's school in February that mentioned students would be participating in the initiative and using Twitter as part of their literacy programme.
"There was no consultation at all with parents, which I felt was the biggest issue."
He said he had spoken to parents who shared similar concerns.
"I could see the benefits of what they were trying to do, but we just questioned whether it was the right platform for schools to do it on."
Warkworth Primary principal Cynthia Holden said the book was being read aloud in class, and once a week, students could participate in an additional 45-minute discussion on Twitter facilitated by a teacher.
Holden clarified children were not using personal accounts, only a class account run by the teacher where posts had to be approved.
"It's very tightly controlled at Warkworth School… We've had discussions with the Ministry of Education and they felt the way we used it had eliminated all risk to the learners, they were comfortable."
Warkworth Primary has set its Twitter account to private. However the Herald on Sunday found class accounts in Hamilton, Auckland, Taupo, Hastings, Wellington and Dunedin set to public – meaning anyone can view the tweets, drawings and photos of the pupils posted there.
Taupo's Wairakei Primary School was one of the class accounts set to public, but Year 5/6 teacher Natasha Forrest said the primary school had an online policy form that parents signed when they enrolled their children.
"As classes we know who can and can't be put on to any public forum. There's a policy for safe use for kids and there's a permission form for parents."
Forrest said she'd received only positive feedback from parents about the initiative.
"It's a very safe environment, and it's basically about engaging kids in their reading and writing. They're loving it too, it's exciting for them."
She said reluctant learners in her class had never been more engaged.
Posting photos of pupils played a very small part in their class Twitter use, she added.
About 95 per cent of what went up was written posts. Forrest noted photos being posted on Twitter was similar to newsletters going up online, which often feature photos of pupils and can be accessed by anyone.
"We're using the platform safely and the kids know not to use hashtags that might lead them somewhere else. If we can start having conversations about cyber-safety then I think that's a benefit."
Chapter Chat's creator, teacher Stephen Baker, said the initiative had a big impact on children around New Zealand and encouraged a love of reading.
"As with all technology there is a risk, but we think the positives far outweigh the negatives. Any time kids go on the internet they can be only one click away from something inappropriate but we don't stop them from using the internet.
"We believe it's better to teach children about the risks of the internet in a real context."
Baker said they had never had problems with inappropriateness from users on schools' pages.
NetSafe CEO Martin Crocker said he had received queries about Twitter-use in schools from parents.
He said public class Twitter profiles were not ideal, and would "probably discourage" schools from putting photos of students on Twitter due to a lack of control of the distribution of them.
"We understand entirely the educational benefit of engaging the students in these conversations, but we encourage schools to find platforms where they can manage the privacy of the students more effectively."
Twitter's terms of service state users must be aged at least 13 to use the platform.
Crocker felt schools were abiding by Twitter's rules in that the person who set up the account was over 13, but he encouraged schools to consider using additional privacy settings.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said they were aware some teachers had set up class Twitter accounts.
"Teachers will be considering the risks of young people using a platform that was not designed for them, by setting up and administering the accounts themselves."
Casey said schools would be aware of and mitigating the risks of having a public account.
"Boards of trustees are required to put in place Internet Safety policies and to comply with legislation, including the Privacy Act. Schools will need to get consent from a parent or guardian before sharing photos of students and their work."
Many schools had policies that included consent for use of student images and school work, often as part of enrolment processes, she added.