Should You Monitor Your Students' Social Media Use?
School districts are increasingly hiring cyber security companies to monitor the social media activity of their students on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. Many school administrators view this oversight as a way to keep students safe from predators, stop bullying and prevent kids from hurting themselves or others. But this practice is also raising concerns over student privacy rights and raises the question: should schools monitor students' social media activity?
• Huntsville, Alabama, City Schools paid $157,190 to a security firm, that employed a former FBI agent to provide the school system with security.
The firm's services included reviewing student social media accounts after the district received tips about possible threats. Huntsville contracted
with the firm after being tipped off about a social media post by a student threatening violence against a teacher, and then finding that the student
had taken a knife to school. Since the Huntsville school system hired the monitoring firm in 2013, the tips it has received have led to 14 students
• Barrington, Illinois, District 220 in suburban Chicago pays a cybersecurity firm called Gaggle to monitor students' email and online posts. Gaggle
uses software to screen for keywords that flag potential sexting, bullying or other inappropriate behaviors, then notifies the district so staff can
investigate. The district issues mobile devices to its students; as part of this process, students are told that what they do with district-owned property
is not private.
• The Glendale Unified School District near Los Angeles pays tech firm Geo Listening $40,500 annually to track public posts made by middle and
high school students. In a pilot program, Geo Listening says it identified a student who had been posting suicide threats and alerted school officials,
who were able to help the student.
"We think it's been working very well," Glendale schools Supt. Dick Sheehan told the Los Angeles Times. "It's designed around student safety and
making sure kids are protected."
Nonetheless, California legislators raised concerns about student privacy, including what might happen to the social media posts that firms collected after the teens in question graduated. Would the students who made them remain vulnerable to cyber attacks, risking exposure years after they had made those posts?
As a result, California enacted a new social media privacy measure in October 2014, ensuring that student social media posts—whether collected by districts themselves or private firms in the employ of districts—must be deleted within one year. Families must be made aware that students are being monitored, and students must have the right to examine whatever information has been collected about them.
While student privacy must be respected, issues with Internet security remain a significant concern for districts. As part of the digital revolution, many districts are either providing mobile devices to students to use or allowing them to use personal devices as part of Bring Your Own Device programs. And the Children's Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, requires schools that receive federal aid to protect students online.
Schools may put filters on devices or equip school networks to block certain sites, but students can often work their way around them. Digital citizenship programs to educate students about proper ways to behave online and what to watch for in order to protect themselves can help. But districts may want to consider whether it is necessary and feasible to monitor public social media posts that students make, in a further effort to protect the safety and security of all students.
Lorna Collier’s articles about education and technology have appeared in US News & World Report, the Chicago Tribune, MSN.com, AARP Bulletin, and many other publications. She is the former online editor for GetEducated.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.