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Camp Staff Use of Electronic Devices and Social Media: Some Issues and Solutions
Recording camp memories, connecting with parents during camp, and staying connected with campers after the camp season are desirable features of the camp experience. Social media1 has greatly expanded the tools for recording and exchanging images and data to enhance and increase these opportunities. Camps work hard to balance the value of these connections with the developmental opportunities inherent in campers and camp staff being “unplugged.” As camps operate in this electronic environment, what do camps need to consider regarding camp staff social media interactions and virtual community building? What are the legal liability issues considering that increased and unchecked social media interaction can lead to legal exposure for the camp or staff member, harm to a camper and damage to the camp’s reputation and credibility? This article will identify some of the issues specifically related to staff actions, potential legal exposure, and propose some solutions, as camps continue to balance the power and dangers of social media.
II. Virtual Realities
- Increasing social media presence: Many camps have made the decision (whether for marketing reasons or otherwise) to have a strong, multilayered, and interactive social media presence and engage with campers and camper parents before, during, and after camp. As a result, staff may be requested to find new ways to interact with campers and their families through social media, perhaps with little or no direction by the camp.
- Parents and the social media culture: Camper parents want a frequent flow of photos, video clips, updates, etc., while kids are AT camp. Staff might be using personal mobile devices or those issued by the camp to meet the demands of this “stepped-up” social media information exchange.
- After camp staff/camper interaction: Staff, camp families, and campers can easily engage in ongoing social media interaction — via Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, blogs, and other Web-based platforms outside the camp season.
III. What Are the Issues?
A. Staff, at times with direction and encouragement from the camp, may be actively and continuously engaging and contributing to social media sites during the camp season.
This can include camp staff posting photos, videos, or written content on camp-sponsored or other social media sites, parent or public access to camp “Web cams,” or other forms of social media interaction.
Staff may have access to a camp issued electronic device or to a personal device for the purposes of gathering images and other content while camp is in session. Or, campers may share their images or content with the camp staff member, including for posting. If unregulated by the camp, the gathering of images and data on an electronic device might include inappropriate images or remarks that could be potentially distributed by the staff member without regard to, and in violation of, the camp’s intended efforts to use the content to sustain a healthy and informative virtual camp community.
In addition, Web cams (both stationary and mobile) might be used by a camp to give parents a look into the camp and a “bird’s eye view” of activities occurring day to day. The dangers of a Web cam are clear — misuse, perhaps inadvertent, by staff or campers, and instant viewing by those who may witness inappropriate conduct between staff and/or campers.
Without clear policies for staff regarding: 1) use of these content gathering devices during camp, and 2) appropriate postings to social media on the camp’s behalf, serious problems can occur. For example, without a policy or agreement with staff, images and content gathered by a staff member on a privately owned device will be reasonably regarded as the staff member’s property. While many camps have policies identifying campers’ use of these devices while at camp, few, to our knowledge, include such a policy for staff. There is the risk that staff may inadvertently, or intentionally, record images that are inappropriate. Staff members need to understand what is inappropriate and unacceptable in a camp’s environment. Consequently, camps should guide and regulate staff regarding use of electronic devices — which can conveniently, and even secretly, capture images and sounds and send them out over one of literally hundreds of social media channels within seconds of the recording.
B. Staff interaction with campers outside the camp season — whether via camp-sponsored social media sites or a staff member’s personal social media presence.
Realistically, the camper cannot prevent staff, camper family, and camper social media contact outside of camp-official sites (for example via camp and staff personal social media presence) — particularly if camp families and staffers live in the same area, attend the same schools, or have mutual friends. However, staff policies can caution staff members on social media interaction with campers outside the camp’s official social media sites, explain potential legal exposure, etc. (See our Spring 2012 CampLine article “After-Camp Contacts between Campers and Staff: A Problem? Whose?” at www.ACAcamps.org/campline/spring-2012/after-camp-contacts.) The staff contract or policies can identify consequences to staff for reports to the camp of inappropriate contact.
IV. Potential Legal Exposure and Damage to the Camp’s Reputation
Unchecked social media and other online interaction between camp staff members, camp families, and campers can lead to legal exposure for the camp or staff member, harm to a camper, and, in any case, damage to the camp’s brand, reputation, and credibility. What are some potential claims?
- Sexual Abuse: Claims by parents of unwanted contact between, for example, a staff member and a camper that they claim led to sexual abuse or harassment of the child — resulting in civil and/or criminal exposure for both the camp and staff member.2
- Defamation: Written (libel) or oral (slander) claims by parents against the camp and/or individual staff member for publication of damag¬ing information (e.g. inappropriate photographs, videos, written content on blogs, etc.).
- Invasion of Privacy: Claims by parents or campers arising from camper-to-staff contact and claims of unwanted and unreasonable violation of the camper’s privacy in the publication of inappropriate images or written content.
- COPPA: Potential violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act — a federal law that restricts operators collecting information from minors under thirteen via the Internet.3
V. Solutions and Potential Consequences
A camp should consider the following strategies to address the issues posed by staff access to and use of electronic devices and social media interaction, both inside and outside the camp season (all in consultation with legal counsel):
- development of staff social media / use of devices policies
- conducting staff training regarding the policies
- potentially including — within staff members’ contracts — consequences for violation of these policies
- appropriate agreement, commitment, and understanding by campers and their parents
A. Staff Social Media Policies or Guidelines
Where are these policies announced? Policies may be identified and discussed in a staff training manual, and outlined in the camp’s employee manual — or some alternative combination. Often, the employee manual requires a staff member to sign off on a commitment to follow articulated policies (including an admonition, if applicable in the camp’s jurisdiction, that the policies contained in the manual do not create a contract, preserving the staff members’ status as “at will” employees — see discussion on next page). Identification and discussion of those policies in the staff training manual and during preseason staff training will bring those policies to life, as staff walk through some of the issues and potential pitfalls associated with the camp’s social media presence.
What to Include in the Policies
IDENTIFY the issues. The camp can recognize the value of a healthy social media presence, but balance this with an approach to social media that is realistic, reasonable, and preserves the ethics and mission of the camp. The camp wants to know that staff understand the issues around the use of electronic devices and social media abuse (including, importantly, harm to a staff member’s reputation and personal exposure to legal claims), that staff will exercise good judgment in these virtual interactions, and that they are committed to healthy and relevant content gathering, dissemination, and commentary, consistent with the camp’s mission.
ADDRESS when (and, importantly, when not) any images/video, etc. taken during camp are official camp property subject to these policies (whether taken on a camp-owned device or an individual’s personal device, or if gathered from participants and shared with staff).
IDENTIFY LOCATIONS where images or data may NOT be taken at camp (bathrooms, shower houses, other private areas, etc.).
ADDRESS details of both appropriate and inappropriate image/content gathering (including photos obtained from campers for use on camp social media sites).
DESCRIBE (AND PROSCRIBE) appropriate and inappropriate staff image/content dissemination and commentary, conducted on the camp’s behalf, on camp-sponsored or other social media sites, both inside and outside the camp season.
ADDRESS rules/limits on or ramifica¬tions of staff member’s personal social media interaction with campers and camp families both inside (if both have access to electronic devices during camp) and outside the camp season. Consider a ban on staff member’s use of “official” camp season “gathered” images for staffer’s personal social media interaction. (See our Spring 2012 CampLine article “After Camp Contacts,” cited previously; the camp likely cannot preclude camp staff personal social media interaction but can advise staff of its dangers and potential consequences.)
ADVISE STAFF of the risk of criminal or civil exposure, harm to campers / camp families, and damage to staff and camp’s reputation for inappropriate use of social media sites.
PROVIDE CONSEQUENCES. As appropriate, the camp policies should include both prohibitions and consequences for violation. The camp policy might limit the data gathering to certain (public) venues within the camp, strictly prohibiting it elsewhere, and emphasizing the absolute zero tolerance for such use in cabins, bathrooms, and shower rooms, for example. Consequences could include confiscation of devices, employee termination, and an agreement of indemnity by the staff member for harm to the camp resulting from a staff member’s violation of these policies (see discussion below).
Importantly, no matter what the policies, the circumstances a camp will face will not always fit neatly into an announced policy. A violation may be inadvertent (“He was in the background. I didn’t intend to show [insert some embarrassing circumstance]”), horseplay (depicting similar circumstances), or simply insensitivity to another’s reasonable privacy. In any event, the camp should place reasonable limits on the recordings so that campers can rely on the safety of the cabin, shower room, or other venue in which some privacy is reasonably expected. Confiscating the device and eliminating the offending images/ sounds is logical and fair. Egregious violations might warrant terminating employment — and contacting the police or other authorities.
B. Staff Training Regarding Social Media Policies
The camp should provide staff training, aligned with written social media policies, so staff clearly understand issues, policies, and consequences.
C. Staff Contract — Potential Consequences for Breaking Policies
In the context of the staff employment contract, the camp’s social media (or other policies) could be incorporated by reference, and the camp could include a provision that, among other inappropriate conduct, staff would be terminated for violation of the camp’s policies — among those — its staff social media/device use policies.
Another strategy might be to provide in the staff contract that the staff member will indemnify (that is, defend and protect) the camp and its owners and employees from any claims that arise out of media abuses by the staff member (including claims brought by camper families against the camp). This is harsh, but so is the hurt and damage to the camp and camper family that can be caused by the careless broadcasting of images never intended for publication. Of course, an indemnity agreement is only as good as the ability of the offending staff member to compensate the camp for the damage caused by the abuse. Also note that an indemnity agreement might be broader to encompass staff violation of other camp policies as well. Camps interested in this strategy for protection should consult with local legal counsel to determine the viability of an indemnity agreement in an em¬ployment context.
Note: Camps should consult with employment counsel on the creation and content of employment contracts — whether for full-time or part-time staff. Counsel will be aware of the relevance and application of the “at-will” employment doctrine in their jurisdiction, and whether or not creation of any type of employment contract might imply termination only ‘“for cause,” thus impinging on the camp’s ability to preserve this at-will status for its employees.4
E. Camper-Parent Commitment, Agreement, and Understanding
Camp Data and Image Gathering and Distribution via Any Media — Including Social Media
Many camps currently have a “media authorization/release” of some type, contained in a camper agreement or other agreement with the family. These provisions, however they are crafted, should be developed by informed legal counsel. The purpose of the media authorization is to memorialize the parents’ consent, for themselves and for the camper, to the camp’s (or the camp’s agents or representatives) ability to photograph, film, record, and/ or otherwise capture in any media the name, image, voice, written statement, etc. (“recordings”) of the camper/parent, and use these recordings, without compensation, in broadcasts or for sale, reproduction, or display via any media — including social media. The media authorization typically provides that these recordings are the camp’s property and that these recordings can be used for any informational, educational, promotional, or other use. The media authorization can include a specific “release,” by the parent, in advance, of any claim of invasion of privacy or other improper, harmful use. Alternatively, a more general agreement, containing a broad release of liability by the parent, may be considered sufficient to cover any claims resulting from alleged improper use of these recordings.
A more aggressive media authorization and release might specifically seek protection for the camp from both authorized and unauthorized (that is, unofficial) data and image gathering and its use, by whomever (for example, staff or camper), however it is used. Some camps will consider this too broad and too casual an approach to protecting a camper’s privacy or other rights and protecting the camp from claims by a camper family. Instead the camp may choose to manage their staff, via the camp’s social media policies, and inform their campers and camper parents of the issues and their responsibilities.
Information to Campers and Parents
The camp should encourage parents to report inappropriate staff/camper social media interaction to the camp and remind parents regarding their responsibilities to monitor their child’s social media activity outside the camp season.
This information can be provided to camp families in a letter or a camper/ parent contract, either mailed or posted on the camp’s Web site along with other important camp information. The camp can include articles and resources for camp families so that they can talk with their camper in advance of camp about these issues. (See our Spring 2012 CampLine article, “After Camp Contacts,” cited previously, for more information.)
Camps rely significantly on social media to maintain their currency and vitality. To protect the camp community, camps should establish rules and guidance for staff use of social media. In addition, camps should inform camper families of their responsibilities, and the issues — and dangers — associated with this rapidly changing virtual landscape.
*This article contains general information only and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. Camps and related organizations should consult with a licensed attorney regarding application of relevant state and federal law as well as considerations regarding their specific business or operation.
1. Social media is defined variously as:
. . . the interaction among peo¬ple in which they create, share, or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks . . . . (www.en.wikipedia.org)
. . . a group of Internet-based applications . . . that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content . . . [that] depend on mobile and Web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms through which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content. (www.en.wikipedia.org)
. . . forms of electronic communication (e.g. Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos). (www.meriamwebster.com)
2. See our Fall 2012 Campline article, “Sexual Abuse: Liability Issues Revisited,” www.ACAcamps.org/campline/fall-2012/child-sexual-abuse
3. 15 U.S.C. 6501, et seq. COPPA is a federal law with certain requirements for those operating commercial Web sites or online services directed to children. It regulates those operators in the col¬lection, use, and disclosure of personal information obtained from children under thirteen years of age. Of course, COPPA applies to a camp’s collection of information in more standard online settings — like an online application or registration process. COPPA (unless an organization is exempt) requires operators to post privacy policies, pro¬vide parental notices, and get verifiable consent from a parent or guardian before they collect, use, or disclose young children’s personal information. If, via your social media sites or Web site, you are collecting information from young children, check with your legal counsel regarding the details so you are in compliance with this federal law. See ACA’s last writing on this subject at www.ACAcamps.org/publicpolicy/childrens-online-privacy-protection. You may also contact 877-FTC-HELP, or e-mail COPPAHotLine@FTC.gov.
4. See our Fall 2007 CampLine ar¬ticle, “Avoiding Staff Surprises,” www.ACAcamps.org/campline/f-2007/avoiding-staff-surprises
Charles R. (Reb) Gregg is a practicing attorney in Houston, Texas, specializing in outdoor recreation matters and general litigation. He can be reached at 713-982- 8415, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.rebgregg.com.
Catherine Hansen-Stamp is a practicing attorney in Golden, Colorado. She consults with and advises recreation and adventure program providers on legal liability and risk management issues. Hansen-Stamp can be reached at 303-232-7049, or e-mail email@example.com; www.hansenstampattorney.com.