Tips for School & District Administrators

Paying a Company to Monitor Students' Social Media Behavior is Fraught with Peril

By Brian Gatens

If my colleagues walk past my office and see me with my head in my hands at my desk, it’ll be because I’ve come upon a topic so aggravating that it stopped me in my tracks. An article in Ars Technica the other day nearly ground my day to a halt; here’s why:

Should companies monitor students' social media activities? The article profiles a company that contracts with school districts to monitor the social media activities of their children. Don’t get me wrong — I completely understand what would motivate a school district to contract with an outside company to do this. Aside from the time drain that corralling inappropriate behavior creates for school administrators, there’s also the serious issue of online bullying taking tragic turns, as we have seen again and again throughout the world.

Are they really thinking this through?

That being said, I cannot help feeling that the Law of Unintended Consequences should motivate school administrators to think long and hard before following the example of the district in the Ars Technica article. Here are a few things to consider:

The company’s service claims to monitor only public websites that might contain hurtful and damaging information. When this becomes known to the students doing all these hurtful things, it will only encourage them to use private or “closed” systems, which takes away the “disinfectant of sunlight” because students have figured out how to circumvent monitoring systems.

Another factor to consider is the Big Brother effect. With all the revelations lately about the countless ways our personal behavior is being tracked online and via extensive camera systems, boards of education should keep in mind that there may be significant legal challenges to the government using public funds to contract with a private company to monitor the non-school-time activities of its students.

Very often, what appears at first blush to be a great idea turns into a protracted and acrimonious legal battle. It is essential for school districts to do all legal due diligence before instituting any contracts or policy changes regarding their students’ use of social media.

Monitoring will not change children’s behavior

Children’s online behavior is an extension of their personal behavior, which schools can influence through their high expectations and strong educational programs. I would suggest that school districts tempted to invest in private companies to monitor behavior might be better off investing in the educational infrastructure of the district. This can include assemblies, character education programs and parent education. Schools also need to promote and publicize examples of appropriate, ethical behavior among their children.

And this is where I (much to my editor’s bemusement) put on my rose-colored glasses. We can hire all the companies we want to monitor student behavior, but the reality is that for as long as we address these issues only from a “catch them after they’ve done it” perspective, we will be perpetuating cycles of behavior where children keep treating each other unkindly.

It’s only through a combination of factors — schools promoting decent and ethical behaviors, home settings creating proper behavior examples for children and children understanding the reasonable expectations set for them — that we begin to make headway on these thorny issues.

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