"I am an agnostic atheist. But I feel like I can't tell anyone here because we are all attending a religious private college." — a student posting on Augustana College Confessions page.|
This anonymous author is part of a trend at colleges across the country. Confessions pages on Facebook are a grass-roots form of communication started by college students to express their views to classmates.
The topics range from young, innocent crushes to weekend parties, and from bizarre and random thoughts to more weighty issues such as political or religious views, and sexual experiences or fantasies.
Hundreds of schools, both large and small, are represented with institution-specific Facebook pages. However, not all colleges and universities approve of the websites because of the sometimes lewd, graphic or distasteful subject matter.
Locally, St. Ambrose University recently had its confessions page taken down because of the use of copyrighted materials from the university, such as logos. School officials advised all students about the misuse, and the creator of the page took it down. A new page, Slambrose SAU Confessions, went up a few days later without any official logos or campus images.
"We became involved because of the tone that was being used on the page and what was being said was accompanied by our logo and name," said John Cooper, vice president of enrollment management.
"It was not to correct negative comments of the university. I read most of the comments on the Slambrose (page), and most of those are about students talking about other students, rather than commenting on St. Ambrose University itself."
In a letter sent to students in late March, Tim Phillips, SAU's dean of students, advised the Davenport school's student body to be careful with posts made on the page.
"Free speech is a fundamental civil right, and St. Ambrose as an institution is big enough to take complaints about cafe food and parking," Mr. Phillips writes. "St. Ambrose is also steadfast about standing for values of respect, honesty and integrity. A line is crossed when words and actions knowingly hurt individuals in our community. Cyberbullying and anonymous slander are antithetical to our mission and values.
"It is gratifying to know that many students, faculty and staff have already stepped forward online or in person to affirm these values, and to push back against anonymous, hurtful messages put forward by a few.
"All campus community members should give thought to whether they are using technology responsibly, and in a way that they would be willing to be publicly associated with.It is important to remember that posts on various sites are a permanent form of communication. What might seem anonymous and harmless can become public and permanent in ways that can cause real and lasting damage to relationships, as well as future employment and opportunities."
Mr.Phillips added that while the school does not "actively monitor non-institutional sites," students are asked to bring to attention to any post that "may be actionable by both the legal system and the campus conduct system."
Across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Augustana College is taking the opposite approach to confessions pages.
Evelyn Campbell, vice president and dean of student services, described the latest fad of social media as a popular venue of communication. "I see this as a new form of self-expression," she said. "When Facebook came out, I made a promise to the students I was not going to look at it and stalk them. If a student brings me a concern of safety, I am going to follow up."
Ms. Campbell said the small campus is unified when it comes to the concerns and safety of both staff and students. "Augustana is the type of college where we all know each other, and where advisers, coaches, professors and staff find out about what is going on with our students on a daily basis," she said. "When there are concerns, we talk to each other and manage the situation."
Michael Tendall, director of counseling services at Augustana and a licensed clinical social worker, said the anonymous component of the confessions pages does concern him.
"The anonymity could be hurtful and belittling, and when there is not a name attached to it, cyberbullying takes a new form," he said. "Generationally, 20-to-22-year-olds are so connected to social media, it is the new way to communicate, but there needs to be ownership of statements or beliefs."
Mr. Tendall said the new technology dilutes face-to-face time and does not lead to better conflict-resolution skills.
"Students are able to craft their message better, but the message of establishing better and personal boundaries shifts," he said.
Yet, there are students who believe in morals and respect their college community anonymously and publicly.
"We are students in a Catholic school," said Michael Byrne, a St. Ambrose freshman. "I believe the good things mentioned in Slambrose are more meaningful than the other shenanigans. When you share kind words about someone in secret or publicly, it shows that you have respect for that girl, and you want people to know how great she is, but you may be nervous telling them in person. Mean people should not ruin it for the rest of us."
A place to vent is how most students describe the confessions pages. "The majority of the posts are dumb things people have done," said Ben Black, a St. Ambrose freshman. "There are a lot of people that comment about other cute people, but when comments are anonymous, people are willing to say more things, which could be bad."
He said he has made posts to the page. "I don't believe in being mean or bad," he said. "It is a good place to put your thoughts."
Kelsey Wrightwood, a sophomore at Augustana, said the negative and sexual comments posted are not the reason for the existence of the confessions page. "Some are too negative," she said. "The purpose for it was to be fun and to post random confessions, like sledding on cafeteria trays. It is supposed to be a fun thing for people to tell you what is on their mind. And being anonymous makes it better because we may not be able to share our thoughts publicly."
Ms. Wrightwood said she would not recommend the page be used by new students or freshmen. "A lot of untrue statements and jokes are made," she said. "They may believe it. It is not a good representation of Augustana."
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