Guidelines for Communicating Electronically with Minors

June 2011

Basics

Electronic communication can be carried out using both physical tools such as cellular phones and webcams, and intangible tools such as email, websites, social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), content sharing sites (e.g., YouTube), blogs and microblogs (e.g., Twitter), and other social media sites.

All decisions related to the means used to communicate electronically with minors should be made by a pastor or principal, rather than an individual employee or volunteer, prior to the use of any tools.

Before communicating with minors electronically, obtain written permission from parents to do so.  Ask parents, in writing, which forms of communication they prefer be used to contact their children. Teachers, catechists, coaches, youth ministers and others should not collect student e-mail addresses and phone numbers from students; this information must be provided, in writing, by parents.  In the case of young children (i.e., elementary school and middle school students), only parents should be contacted directly.  In the event minors are contacted directly by employees or volunteers, parents must be copied on the content of all messages (although the duplicate message need not be sent using the same means of communication used to contact the minor).

The content of electronic communication should be brief and on topic. When communicating with a minor, write or speak as if you are also communicating with their parents; the boundaries that must be respected in oral communication extend to electronic communication.  All communication must conform to Archdiocesan Safe Environment Training and the Code of Conduct.  Communication that violates the Code of Conduct will not be tolerated, regardless of the medium used to convey it.  Except in extraordinary circumstances, all communication between adults and minors should take place between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.  This includes the posting of content to websites and social networking sites.

The following guidelines provide specific direction for the use of certain common forms of electronic communication:

Cellular Phones/Text Messaging

  • Whenever possible, use school or office lines to conduct ministry/school-related conversations.
  • Except in cases of emergency, do not call minors directly (e.g., on a minor’s cellular phone).  Instead, call parents’ or family lines. 
  • Except in extraordinary circumstances, do not share your personal cell phone number with minors.
  • Do not communicate with minors individually via text message.  One possible alternative to the use of traditional one-on-one text messaging is the use of social networking sites (see point one under “Social Networking Sites”).

Email

  • Do not contact minors using a personal email address.  Only official Archdiocesan or parish accounts should be used for communication.   
  • If possible, always copy parents on emails sent to minors.  In the case of certain minors (i.e., elementary school and middle school students), only email parents.
  • Do not add a minor to personal electronic mailing lists (e.g., when sending or forwarding an email unrelated to educational or ministry-based activities, do not add minors to the list of recipients).
  • If you receive an inappropriate personal communication from a minor (especially a communication that is sexual in nature), keep a copy of the message and report it to your supervisor.

Social Networking Sites

  • Employees or volunteers should not use personal social networking site accounts to contact minors.  Instead, a parish or school can create a group or organization page used strictly for education or ministry-related communication.  These accounts must be registered to the school or parish, instead of to individuals within an organization.  All group pages or ministry/education-related accounts should be titled to reflect their official nature.  Passwords to such accounts should be accessible to the pastor or principal and two other employees.
  • No personal contact information should be listed in the profile fields. Only official email addresses, office phone numbers and job titles should be listed. 
  • Account settings should be set to maximize privacy.
  • While schools and parishes are free to publicize their presence on social networking sites, minors should not be sought out as contacts or “friends” (i.e., individually invited via site communication tools to associate with the group or page).
  • If a minor seeks association with your personal social networking page or account, you should refuse or ignore the minor’s request (e.g., you should ignore the “friend request,” and not become “friends” with the minor).
  • Do not post pictures of minors without first obtaining a signed written release from the minor’s parent(s) or guardian(s).  Do not “tag” pictures of minors (i.e., label photos to increase their accessibility or visibility on a site). 
  • Only comment on education or ministry-related threads.
  • Do not use instant messaging programs (e.g., Facebook chat) to communicate with minors.
  • Official walls and pages must be frequently monitored for inappropriate posts.  Inappropriate posts should be promptly removed/deleted. A specific individual should be responsible for monitoring sites and removing inappropriate content.
  • If third parties create unofficial groups or fan pages about your group or organization, periodically review them for inappropriate content (e.g., unauthorized use of logos, bullying, harassing or defamatory language, etc.)  You may report these pages/groups/users to the hosting site and ask that they be removed.
  • All content posted by employees and volunteers must reflect Catholic teachings and values.

If you have any questions or would like to provide feedback, please contact the Office of Legal Services:

Maureen Murphy
mmurphy@archchicago.org
(312) 534-8303