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US Students’ Rights at Risk from Social Media Monitoring

Tackling School Violence Should Still Respect Privacy, Free Expression

A student takes a moment to check her phone at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Chicago on Friday, June 8, 2018. © 2019 AP Photo/Martha Irvine

School is out for the summer in the United States, but concerns about shootings and other violence on campus loom large. In response, some US school districts are turning to programs that monitor students’ social media activities for purported warning signs of violence. But these programs risk interfering excessively with children’s rights without proof that they are necessary or reliable in addressing the problems districts are trying to solve.

A Florida law passed last year requires the state’s Department of Education and law enforcement to create a central database capturing, among other things, information from social media. While this plan has generated controversy, a state commission report indicates that software under consideration would “scan social media to identify signs of bullying, self-harm or threats of violence against students, employees and schools.”

A number of districts elsewhere in the country have already purchased social media monitoring programs. The US-based Brennan Center for Justice reports that 63 districts purchased such programs last year – up from 6 in 2013. The programs can work in different ways, but according to the Brennan Center, a significant number involve software that analyzes social media posts for indicators of potential violence or self-harm.

Despite increasing enthusiasm for these programs, their efficacy in preventing harm to students has not yet been proven, and the potential impact on students’ privacy rights could be unnecessary and disproportionate – making such interference incompatible with international human rights standards. For example, programs could store excessive or sensitive information, including due to inaccurate or broad monitoring of posts for keywords thought to relate to mental health. They could also generate records of children simply expressing the normal highs and lows of childhood – and the children posting the material may not always understand these possible consequences.

Overly broad monitoring could also negatively impact freedom of expression of students and others. Studies show that when people realize they are under surveillance online, they are more likely to self-censor and refrain from communicating with certain groups or individuals.   

Protecting students from violence should be a top priority for schools. But when the new school year begins this fall, officials should avoid unnecessary surveillance and treat students’ online activity in a way that doesn’t interfere needlessly with rights.

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