Hazelton: Monitoring students’ social media accounts is expensive and relatively useless

Paul Hazelton

School districts in Orange County Florida are renewing the allocation of money and man hours to monitor their students’ social media accounts.

The practice, which started last year, reportedly allows schools to read public posts and is meant to keep an eye out for troubled youth. Specifically, they’re looking for kids who may be contemplating suicide, violent action against their peers, criminal activity and/or cyber-bullying. This occurs in other parts of the country such as Huntsville, Tennessee where they paid to have an former FBI agent to comb their kids data.  

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In Orlando, this program is geo-fenced so students’ social media is only monitored while on school grounds. However, the follow-ups are often performed off school property — and they encompass the entire account histories. If the school picks up something overly concerning, the police can and often are called.

Now, that sounds like a nice idea, right? No one wants a school shooting, no one wants a suicide or cyber bullying or students to be involved in crime. But in my opinion, spending $18,000 a year on an academic big-brother program is a waste.

Initially a school might be able to find out when kids are attacking kids online, and they might even be able to stop them the first few times. But, as we all know, kids are masters of the internet. It doesn’t take a whole lot of intelligence to figure out that they’re being spied on, and it takes even less ingenuity to figure out that they can create bogus Facebook or whatever page. With that alter ego, those bullies can easily continue to troll the student in question. And while their school may realize that the child is still being attacked, they have lost all enforcement power. Clearly, that’s a false use case.

While its true that schools might be able to curb self-harm and some outward violence within the population, you’ve gotta ask yourself: How many people post those plans on social media? For those who do, more often than not, this cry for help is apparent without digital spying. In fact, all spying accomplishes is the self censorship of students, which in tern robs schools of the info that they and parents want to find out.  

The same goes for attempting to catch kids acting illegally. You might catch a couple but after a while, expecting  kids to incriminate themselves on any charges higher than smoking weed is ludicrous. 

See the problem here isn’t the idea behind this policy or that schools are infringing upon privacy, after all students have the choice in making their posts public. It’s commendable to attempt to understand your students and help them through a rough period in their lives, but scholastic big brother isn’t the answer.

First of all, that $18,000 would almost assuredly be better spent on, say, a possibly failing education system that is already short-funded. It might also be enough money to hire part time counselors or to pay teachers a bit more than the embarrassingly small sums they’re currently accustomed to.

And besides, these kids don’t need to be surveyed and have the cops called on them for every minor offense. What they need is for someone to pay attention to them, genuinely care about their well-being and talk to them. This is, as I understand it, half of any decent teachers’ job description and certainly that of parents. Snooping on their social media accounts may tell you that these kids are in dire circumstances, but it will never tell you why and it will never solve the root problems behind those symptoms.        

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.