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Isman ’15: A positive end: online monitoring in schools

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Opinions Columnist

There seem to be no secrets kept anymore. Whatever we want to know is on the Internet, from news to movies to who went to whose party and what they did there. The Internet has opened a new world of knowledge for us, but it has also made us easier targets and has altered our notion of privacy.

People of all ages report their everyday lives on the Internet, making us more vulnerable to judgment — since anyone can see and critique our actions. More than that, it also turns the Internet into a confessional, a place where we relieve ourselves of our burdens, thinking that there will be no consequences to what we say.

In light of the NSA surveillance scandal and the implied infringement on freedom of speech, monitoring anyone is a questionable activity. We should be allowed to express our opinions freely without suffering repercussions and without fear of what having a different opinion than our superiors could lead to. Yet schools in California have begun keeping track of their students’ online profiles. Through the help of Geo Listening, a technology company that combs through social network posts of the students in the district, administrators have been keeping an eye on what students say online.

Geo Listening goes through students’ social media postings and flags suspicious behavior and comments. Such behavior can be anything from posts that deal with depression, despair, bullying or hate speech to violations of school codes of conduct. Their methods take into account the severity and frequency of the posts to ensure that their reports are accurate and necessary. Geo Listening then hands the reports to the schools so officials can deal with the problems as they see fit.

Some might say that this encroaches on students’ privacy and goes beyond the traditional role of a school, arguing the schools’ job is to regulate what they do in school, not what they do in their free time. But what if they only regulate students’ public posts?

The company has no access to the students’ private accounts, therefore, so they are not technically breaching anyone’s privacy. If students don’t want certain information known, they should not post it as public in the first place. The only difference is that previously, schools were not specifically looking for suspicious posts — and now they are.

The students call out for help when they don’t know where to turn. Before Geo Listening, this call for help would most likely remain unanswered and could eventually lead to violent actions. The public nature of these posts means that these students wanted their feelings to be read, and now administrators can intervene and provide the right support to the students in need. It also shows students that support systems exist for them to be able to deal with depression and bullying, among other issues.

The program is not aiming to limit the students’ freedom of speech. It’s trying to both pinpoint dangerous activity before anyone is harmed and to teach kids to be more aware of the impact of their Internet presence. Students aren’t punished for having opinions, rather the school helps students understand the effect of posting their opinions online. The program is not silencing anyone — it is creating a space for conversation where there is need.

Additionally, the allure of online bullying is that it can occur without any adult finding out. If kids know that their online bullying is just as public as their face-to-face bullying, they might be less likely to take part in such activities. Students who already have depressive or violent tendencies are likely to respond to online bullying drastically. These actions have driven students to suicide in the past. The bullied may even seek revenge on the bullies. Geo Listening’s reports could prevent this from happening by ensuring that adults are informed and have the capability of intervening before it’s too late.

Regardless of whether students are posting dangerous things online or not, however, these policies will make them more aware of how their words can affect both themselves and others. Chris Frydrych, founder of Geo Listening, has said that “if [their] service gets kids to privatize their pages, that’s all a positive for our kids and our society.” It seems that no matter how much schools try to educate their students on the value of discretion when posting on the Internet, students never really comprehend until actually faced with real consequences.

Since the program aims to help students instead of reprimand them, it could lead to a greater understanding of the effects of public postings. The program leads students to understand consequences without actually getting them in trouble. This will help prevent students from suffering consequences of public postings later on in life, when the consequences are more significant than a talk with a teacher.

Even if this is not saving anyone’s life directly, this minor change in the students’ relationship with the Internet is still a success for the company and the school district. If it won’t work as a life-saver, it will work as a learning tool, and both options are beneficial in the long run.

Only time will be able to tell whether Geo Listening and similar companies will be beneficial to communities or not. While it still remains questionable for educational institutions — or anyone — to be monitoring what we do with our private time, when the goal is preventing tragedy, shouldn’t we at least give it a try?

Sami Isman ’15 can be reached at samantha_isman@brown.edu.

  • TheRationale

    “…shouldn’t we try?”

    NO!

    This is the Pascal’s wager of surveillance. There is a small chance you’ll catch something, perhaps if Saturn is aligned with Mars and we sacrifice a goat. Online bullying is no different in its elusiveness than physical bullying – only stupid bullies get caught, or they succeed for quite a while until they do get caught. And that assumes they stop after that.

    The solution is not to gobble up every waking second of a kid’s life so that some gum chewing guidance counselor can have license to start poking the kid with a stick. For every weirdo you do “save,” how many normal kids (and parents) are you going to annoy by falsely “detecting problems” with them.

    The solution is to have kids learn about the Internet from people who actually know about the Internet. EG If you think “trolling” is somehow a problem for society to address, you’ve just disqualified yourself. If you don’t know what a proxy is, leave now. If you can’t tell real download buttons from advertisements, you’re done.

    The bigger picture is to have kids learn how to stick up for themselves and learn how to figure out people problems on their own. Of course help them, but it’s teach a man to fish vs give a man a fish. They have to deal with other people, and the Internet, and life in general, as it comes, and not grow up having some looming totalitarian omniscient authority there to…gosh, scary as it sounds, think for them.

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  • kilam

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