While we live in the information age, not all of that information is good. Therefore, should we monitor what students search online? The US school system certainly thinks so.
As we step further into the information age, we bristle at any sign of control. Any eyes upon our person are automatically deemed as an invasion of our privacy. Now, that may hold true for we adults, well adjusted as we are, but for our children, the digital waters are somewhat muddier.
Over in the US, they’ve passed something called the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), where every federally funded school must have a stringent internet-safety policy in place.
It sort of makes sense, considering the cause and effect of the internet age, and all that sits in its darker corners. These systems, called SMPs (Safety Management Platforms), scan through the millions of words typed on school computers to identify certain trigger phrases, such as self-harming behaviour, mass-shooting themed searches, et cetera.
You can see how it works in theory, but save for the curious, you can just assume that those at-risk or susceptible to those behaviours or thoughts will just be further pushed to research at home. It doesn’t really solve the issue, it just moves it off school grounds. In the interest of objectivism, each of the companies that built these SMPs possess case studies where an intercepted message helped save lives.
So far, so puzzling. There’s another aspect to it also. I’m not marginalising the possibilities of another mass shooting, nor am I dismissing the technology as ineffectual, but for every legitimate threat, there are multitudinous instances of elevated false alarms.
A recent article told the story of Michael Schmitt, a New Jersey teen who was expelled from school due to a line he wrote in a DIY hip-hop song that alluded to the female student body of his school. Per Buzzfeed:
A student saw Schmitt’s tweet and noted that his profile photo on the music streaming site SoundCloud showed him pointing a handgun at the camera. The alarmed student thought Schmitt’s track sounded violent and told her mom, who alerted a teacher, according to police reports. School administrators called police in West Caldwell, New Jersey, around 1 p.m. to report a possible threat, and soon after, a SWAT team descended on the campus, where — although school was not in session — hundreds of people were gathered for a weekend music concert that rainy Saturday.
It’s vague at best, but is now subject to an uncertain future, all enabled by the “play it safe” perception of a school administrator. This incident might be an outlier, but you can imagine that similar decisions will be made, especially when backed up by hard data enabled by the aforementioned system.
The root paranoia is that students’ protection is coming at the expense of their privacy. Children need a safe digital space to explore who they are, and who they aren’t. With that being said, insight into the mindset of students is a valuable thing to pursue. Not every at-risk student is a Potemkin collection of obvious woe. Girard Kelly, the director a non-profit that promotes internet-safety education for children, disclosed the following to Quartz: “Suppose you are a kid considering suicide and you want to write a diary about it or talk to your friend about the feelings that you’re having, but you don’t because you’re afraid you’ll be turned into your parent…I’m not sure that’s a good outcome.”
Kelly goes further, castigating the modern schooling experience in America, stating: “…not only are there metal detectors and cameras in the schools, but now their learning objectives and emails are being tracked too.”