Regulation of the Day 194: Facebook Friends

Missouri has a new law that bans teachers from becoming Facebook friends with any current or former student. The goal is to prevent inappropriate teacher-student relationships.

There are several points to make here. The first is that this is what parenting writer Lenore Skenazy calls “worst first” thinking. It’s rooted in black swan bias, a cognitive defect in the human brain that overestimates the frequency of rare but horrifying risks. Black swan bias has led to, among other things, the creation of the TSA.

Here, the concern is pedophilia. Statistically, it is extremely rare. But it is so horrifying that legislators and the parents who vote for them take precautions completely out of proportion to the actual threat. They assume the worst first. Ready, FIRE!, aim.

Another point is that prohibition doesn’t work; if a teacher-student relationship is going to happen, preventing a Facebook friendship won’t stop anything. Such trysts existed long before Facebook did. This law treats a symptom rather than the disease. And the disease is, frankly, not entirely preventable. That doesn’t make it right; that’s just how it is.

The law, though sloppily written, does have a modicum of common sense. If both parties are 18, they are legally allowed to become Facebook friends. As someone who regularly interacts with former grad school professors online, this is a relief.

It’s a bad idea for underage students and their teachers to become Facebook friends. That’s why most teachers don’t allow it. For those that do, a law is unlikely to stop them. Few teacher-student Facebook friendships turn into anything unseemly. And if any do, statutory rape is already illegal.