Below you will find AFS’s policy on Electronic Communication and Participant Web Use. This information is shared with hosted participants in the Welcome to the USA handbook, which they receive prior to their arrival in the U.S. Host parents should review this policy with their hosted participant to ensure full understanding of the material.
It will be important to talk with your hosted participant about expectations for internet usage, including online safety. Remember, it can be difficult to interpret the meaning or tone of written messages, especially when they are written in online shorthand and emojis. The ability to distinguish subtle meaning in online messages can be very important to maintaining safety online.
The government website OnGuard Online (www.onguardonline.gov) features an exercise called “Friend Finder” that allows users to practice distinguishing between good-natured messages and more sinister requests for personal information. It might be useful for host families and hosted participants to complete this exercise together in starting a discussion about staying safe online. It is important to remember that internet usage varies across cultures, from countries with restricted/controlled access to countries with more freedom and accessibility to the web.
Email and Social Media
With increasing access to communication technology around the world, participants may have difficulty deciding how much communication is enough. It’s important to remember that too much communication with friends and family back home can stand in the way of participants’ adjustment to your host community and culture, not to mention it may send a message to host families that they’re uninterested in getting to know the host family members.
Social media can be a useful tool to connect and communicate with new friends that participants make in the U.S. Help to ensure that your hosted participant limits the amount of time spent communicating with their friends back home, as this keeps them from building relationships and may increase homesickness. Spending too much time on one’s cell phone can get in the way of participants’ successful adjustment to the U.S.
If your hosted participant engages in frequent online communication with family and/or friends back home, discuss the impact and effects of constant communication. If contact from the parent(s)/guardian(s) or friends from back home (via phone, online chat, or e-mail) interferes with the hosted participant’s adaptation process, please contact your liaison who can work with you and the hosted participant to help remedy the situation. The liaison may also get in touch with the appropriate AFS Participant Support Staff, who will contact the hosting partner staff, who will work with the parent(s)/guardian(s) to work toward a solution.
Pornography, Sexting and the Internet
For anyone under the legal age of consent, receiving or sending pornographic content/material may be considered illegal in your state; receiving or sending child pornography, defined as material depicting a minor or minors in actual or simulated sexual conduct is a crime in all states. This includes the transmission of photographs of persons known or unknown to the sender under the age of eighteen, via cell phone, smart phone, or the internet, regardless of whether the subject of the photo has provided their consent. Accessing child pornography sites and transmitting child pornography is liable to criminal investigation and prosecution.
AFS Participants should NEVER send a nude or partially nude photo of themselves to others (sexting), and they should notify their host parent(s), liaison or trusted adult immediately if they receive such a photo from someone else. In addition, AFS Participants should NEVER forward such an image to others as this could be considered “distribution of child pornography”, which could have very serious legal consequences for the hosted participant AND the recipient of the photo.
In addition to the very serious legal ramifications, hosted participants should be aware of the negative impact accessing such sites can have on their host family, school, volunteers, and community. It is very unlikely that any host family in the U.S. would want to continue hosting an AFS Participant that they feel associates themselves with these types of materials. Because of these very serious consequences, if any hosted participant avails themselves of adult or child pornography, the hosted participant may be terminated from the program and returned home early.
We strongly recommend that host parents discuss this matter with their hosted participant at the beginning of the program during the discussion about internet usage. Please let your hosted participant know that you, as host parents, are only doing so to make sure that they understand the information presented here and to protect them from the potentially very serious consequences should they accidentally or otherwise access any pornography. By discussing this subject up front, host parents raise their hosted participant’s awareness and equip them to make the right choices and avoid serious legal action associated with involvement in internet pornography.
It is important to be very sensitive when discussing this subject with your hosted participant. Keep in mind that pornography is a subject that may not be openly discussed in other cultures and your hosted participant may feel uncomfortable talking about it. To help cope with this potentially awkward situation, open the conversation by explaining that you need to discuss this information because you want to help your hosted participant to avoid making mistakes.
Information on these topics is presented to participants via the student safety materials and, for some countries, during their pre-arrival orientations.
Should you have any concerns regarding student online conduct/etiquette, we encourage you to discuss this immediately with your AFS liaison/local volunteer to determine the appropriate course of action for addressing the matter at hand.
Downloading Music and Media from the Internet
Your hosted participant should be informed that it is illegal to download music, movies, and other copyrighted materials from sites hosting BitTorrent and that legal action may be taken against them for engaging in illegally downloading or sharing copyrighted materials. Copyright laws vary around the world, so your hosted participant may not understand that while their internet practices may have been legal in their home country, those same practices may be illegal here in the U.S.
In the U.S., not only can legal action be taken against your hosted participant for downloading copyrighted materials, but legal action can also be taken against you if the materials are illegally downloaded onto your family’s computer and/ or via your family’s internet service. If your hosted participant utilizes your family’s computer and/or your family’s internet service with their own computer, it is reasonable for you to monitor what your hosted participant is downloading to help ensure that no one becomes involved with copyright infringement.
Electronic Communication and Participant Web Use
The following information consists of tips for safe and effective hosted participant internet use. Host parents should be aware that customs involving internet use differ around the world, and use the following sections as a guide for participants on appropriate internet use while in the U.S.
Host families should discuss the following sections with their hosted participant, including Guidelines for Internet Use and Pornography on the Internet. It’s important for host families to:
- Set clear boundaries on “screen time” (i.e. cell phones, internet, social media etc.)
- Explain family rules and expectations
Mind Your Manners!
AFS Participants are, of course, free to discuss their experience in the U.S. with anyone. However, for their own protection and in the best interest of AFS, we ask that participants not email, share or post on the internet any content that is critical of particular individuals, their host community, or the U.S. Choosing to disregard this policy could result in an early return or other disciplinary action.
Respect Everyone’s Privacy
If AFS Participants are using social media, make sure they are not disclosing private information about themselves or their host family, and that their privacy settings are set so that only friends can access their profile. Remind your hosted participant that many people (i.e., host family, teachers, students, etc.) may have access to information linked to the hosted participants, including pictures. Make sure that hosted participants control the information on these sites to maintain a good impression of themselves, their host family, and AFS.
Please note that any information that appears on social media or other public websites that refers to an AFS Participants’ involvement in activities such as driving, drugs, or other dangerous behaviors may be cause for early termination of their program. Violating host country travel policies or other policies established for participant safety may also be cause for early return to their home country. This information is explained in the Participation Agreement to which the participant agreed upon entering the program. Please remind participants to respect AFS rules and exercise discretion when choosing what to post on social media.
Guidelines for Internet Use
In the “Welcome to the USA” Handbook, hosted participants are informed about responsibilities regarding internet use that is consistent with the following AFS-USA guidelines:
Approval: We highly recommended that AFS Participants who create their own blogs or post material to social media discuss the content in advance with their host family and liaison to ensure that the material is suitable and complies with these guidelines.
Disclaimer: Any blog or website maintained by an AFS Participant during their AFS program must reflect the fact that it is NOT an official publication of AFS-USA. The site must be labeled clearly and prominently with an appropriate disclaimer such as: "The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of AFS- USA."
Use of the AFS-USA Logo: Because use of the AFS-USA logo is reserved for official activities authorized by AFS-USA, the logo may NOT be used on participant websites.
Cultural Sensitivity: The thoughtful opinions that participants convey in their communications with others can contribute substantially to developing a better understanding of other countries. However, given the broad access to AFS Participant-posted material on the internet, AFS Participants should remain culturally sensitive with respect to the material they post to any website. AFS Participants should be reminded that people in their host countries and members of the U.S. public may make assumptions about AFS-USA or the AFS Participant’s community based on the content the AFS Participant posts online and/or shares on social media. Although we encourage AFS Participants to express themselves freely, AFS Participant-posted material on the internet should make efforts to not reflect poorly on AFS-USA, the host family, or the host or home country.
Safety and Security: As a safety precaution, participants are urged to NOT to post details about where they or other AFSers live, or information about events to be attended by AFS Participants such as orientations or parties. For their own protection, hosted participants should NOT post or share information about their personal possessions.
Publication Policies: As stated in the US Department of State Regulations hosted participants may NOT be employed while in the U.S. Therefore, hosted participants may NOT accept payment for anything they write or photograph that appears on the web. Hosted participants should be advised that posting materials to the internet that they have not authored or created may violate U.S. copyright laws.
When in doubt: When in doubt about whether something that your hosted participant is planning to share or post is appropriate and/or lawful, discuss these questions with your hosted participant or liaison:
- Is the hosted participant revealing any personal information about someone without that person’s permission?
- Is the hosted participant revealing personal information about themselves which could be misused?
- Is the hosted participant revealing personal information about their host family without the host family’s knowledge and/or permission?
- Is the hosted participant using materials protected by copyright (such as the AFS logo)
- If the hosted participant has permission, is it wise and safe to share this information on social media etc.?
There are many resources on the internet to advise on how you can help to ensure your hosted participant’s’ online safety. We recommend that host families take the time to explore information regarding cyber safety and that both host families and participants continually review their own online activities to make certain that they are putting safety ahead of socialization at all times. One site that host parents may want to explore is:
AFS takes participant safety very seriously. We recommend that host parents and hosted participants be extremely careful with all personal information. Please use care when connecting with or ‘friending’ others. On AFS social networking sites like Facebook, we make efforts to keep our community restricted to individuals who are directly involved with AFS Programs, such as volunteers, students who are studying abroad and AFS Returnees, students who are hosted in the U.S., staff, etc.
Please encourage your hosted participant to customize their privacy settings so that only authorized people can see their personal details. Remind participants to be careful about what kinds of identifying information they publicly share about themselves.
Posting on AFS Fan Pages and Groups
AFS-USA has fan pages and other sites that are open forums for members to share advice, experiences, videos, photos, etc. about hosting an AFS exchange student and the experience of studying abroad. While these are open forums and can provide information, please refer to the AFS-USA website as your information guide: http://www.afsusa.org
You can find AFS-USA on social media via these links:
When you become a member of an AFS group online, this indicates that you agree to conduct discussions and other postings with respect. Members should not spam, defame, harass or stalk members, encourage illegal activity, or in any way falsely represent themselves, nor should they post explicit, obscene, or otherwise objectionable content. Posts should be relevant to AFS-USA.
We reserve the right to delete inappropriate or off-topic content and posting such content may result in being blocked from our fan page. If you find anything inappropriate, please notify a page administrator so that we can handle it appropriately.
While we try to monitor discussions, AFS fan pages and other sites are not official forums for discussion. Urgent questions and concerns should be addressed directly to the AFS Marketing and Communications Department at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos, and other entries on AFS social networking sites do not necessarily represent the opinions and/or policies of AFS-USA.