President Obama isn’t the only one dealing with boundary problems when it comes to monitoring the affairs of others. School officials across the country are trying to determine when, and if, they are off-duty in keeping an eye on their students. And thousands of schools will reportedly be listening in by the end of the school year.
The waters here are uncharted, and school districts can end up in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t position. Student privacy advocates criticize watchdog services like Geo Listening, which estimates that it will be monitoring social media at over 3,000 schools by the end of this school year. Their goal is to flag everything from bullying to suicide risks to plans for truancy.
Some detractors worry that searching kids’ social media is an affront to free speech. Others worry that such efforts will only cripple attempts to build trust between young people and authority figures.
Schools find themselves in a particularly precarious position: If they overreach, they can get slapped down. If they don’t monitor social media, they may be plagued by “What ifs”? In 2011, a court ruled that school officials violated the Constitution when they punished students for posting selfies that featured “lollipops shaped like phalluses.” The suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year old who killed herself after enduring a particularly brutal and lengthy assault of online bullying, prompted the arrest of two of her alleged tormenters. But the police action was too late to stop Sedwick's suicide.
As a parent of two young daughters, I’m more than a little wary about cyberbullying. Personally, I will sleep a little better if there are companies like Geo Listening keeping an eye out for warning signs. And I will put up with my daughters being pulled into the principal’s office to answer for something objectionable they said online — even if it’s something I wouldn’t object to. The sooner they learn that social media has consequences, the better, I think.
Do you think schools should punish students if they’re behaving badly and talking about it on social media? Tell us in a comment or a blog post.