Common Classroom: The Common Sense Education Blog

How Far Should Schools Go to Monitor Students’ Social Media?

Kathleen Costanza Blogger Categories: Digital Citizenship

Glendale Unified school district’s decision to hire a private company to keep tabs on students’ social media has spurred controversy and reignited a debate over how and when schools should step into students’ social media lives.

At a price tag of $45,000, the California district hired Geo Listening to monitor about 14,000 students’ public posts for anything having anything to do with “substances, self-harm, disruption of class or school activities, hazing, sexual harassment of peers or teachers, threats or acts of physical violence, use of fake identification, hate speech, racism, weapons and suicide or despair,” according to the Los Angeles Times. When the company finds a red flag, it takes a screenshot and emails it to an administrator with a description of why it was flagged, along with when and where it was posted. The company estimates it will be monitoring about 3,000 schools worldwide by the end of the year.

In the avalanche of news reports about the decision, the company and school have repeatedly emphasized Geo Listening only screens public posts, there’s no hacking or looking into students’ private information.

"No matter where they are, if they are advertising it in the public domain, it's no different than if they're standing in front of a teacher," Chris Frydrych, founder and CEO of Geo Listening, told the Los Angeles Times.

The ACLU and other privacy advocates feel differently. Not to mention the students themselves, some of whom have said they only found out about the program via posts on -- you guessed it -- social media.

“I would ask, what business is it of the school's what my child does on Facebook? Does the school think it has a general roving commission to conduct surveillance on students outside of school?” Lee Tien, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Ars Technica.

Many educators would agree that, contrary to Frydrych’s belief, comments made on Twitter or Facebook are fundamentally different than statements shouted in the center of a classroom. Posts are exponentially more nuanced; who makes the judgment call about sarcasm or irony when in reference to “disruption of class or school activities”? It’s a tricky line that some say schools shouldn’t walk at all.

The emphasis on public-only posts also raises the question, now that the world and Glendale students know their posts are being scanned, won’t they just make their posts and accounts private? And isn’t there an easier way to teach teens to use social media wisely, and privately? We have numerous lessons for teaching kids how privacy works, and for explaining why it’s worth protecting their digital footprint.

No doubt there are valid concerns surrounding privacy, not to mention the stumbling blocks of accuracy and comprehensiveness. However, there’s a real problem with cyberbullying that schools across the country are still struggling to solve. An illuminating 2011 Pew report found 15 percent of social-media users between 12 and 17 said they’d been harassed online in the previous year. And 88 percent said they’ve seen another person being cruel on social media. The report also highlighted the vast differences between teens and adults in their perceptions of peoples’ kindness online, which further goes to show how tricky it is for adults to truly understand the online universes that are so central to their kids’ lives.

“... Many schools now have to deal with the question of how far they should go in monitoring cyberbullying and conflicts between students that move fluidly from the classroom to Facebook or Twitter,” writes privacy and tech writer Kashmir Hill, who points to some recent acts of violence or self-harm in schools that had warnings broadcasted on social media before they occurred.

Schools have been held accountable for their lack of response to cyberbullying, but their hands are also tied as to what exactly they can do when bullying happens outside school walls and behind screens. For districts like Glendale, which are wrestling with how to handle students ever-growing social media worlds, monitoring is an attempt prevent the serious, harmful problems happening in students’ lives.

Either side of the argument, one thing is clear: Monitoring social media is reactionary -- the posts have already been made, and if its hate speech aimed at another student, irreparable damage may have already been caused. That’s why Emily Bazelon, bullying expert and author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” believes the most effective way to use funds is prevention, as she argued in this Washington Post Q&A.

Our cyberbullying toolkit is chock full of resources teachers can use to prevent cyberbullying, from turning bystanders into “upstanders,” and watching for warning signs, teaching our kids the responsibility that comes with social media is the first step to making the web a safer place for everyone.

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