Schools in Florida are renewing a program that monitors their students' social media activity for criminal or threatening behavior, although it has caused some controversy since its adoption last year.
SnapTrends collects data from public posts on students' social media accounts by scanning for keywords that signify cases of cyberbullying, suicide threats, or criminal activity. School security staff then comb through flagged posts and alert police when they see fit. Research suggests that 23 percent of children and teens have been cyberbullied. Studies connecting social media and suicide have not shown definitive results, but there has been research that suggests that cyberbullying leads to suicide ideation more than traditional bullying.
Orange County Public Schools adopted the SnapTrends program as part of a "prevention and early intervention" program. After the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in 2012, the school participated in a sweeping technical review with law enforcement and state emergency experts with a focus on safety. They recommended some sort of social media monitoring program, saying that threats can sometimes be spotted on social media postings. "We felt we needed to deal with these vulnerabilities," Shari Bobinski, who manages media relations in the school system, told The Washington Post.
Orange County schools said that since implementing the software last year, it has run 2,504 automated searches, leading to 215 manual searches by school staff. Details of the 12 police investigations that stemmed from searches in the past year have not been divulged by the school system. The school system told the Orlando Sentinel that it doesn't want public details of the program to interfere with its effectiveness.
Bobinski, however, shared one anecdote from last year. The software flagged a female student for using the keyword "cutting" and the phrase "nobody will miss me." Since the software gets a huge number of flags for words and phrases like these, the security staff delved deeper, investigating more posts by the student. They discovered that she had two conflicting social media accounts: one that told the story of a happy, normal girl, and the other of someone suffering from suicidal thoughts and depression. The school staff alerted police, who conducted a welfare check at the student's home and informed her father. She eventually went into treatment.
The story exemplifies the kind of safety checks that social media monitoring offers. But Bradley S. Shear, a privacy and social media lawyer based in Bethesda, Md., expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of using software like SnapTrends. He's uncomfortable with the collection and storing of information on students. "Is this data then gonna be tied to a student's permanent school record? Does the company have proper policies in place that delete this data after a certain period of time? These are some questions that need to be asked," he said in an interview with The Post. An example of an appropriate period of time for data to be stored, he suggested, would be until a year after the student graduates or until they turn 18 -- a guideline set by a California state law that aims to protect social media privacy for students monitored by schools.
Kids are very tech savvy, he emphasized, and are likely to find creative ways to evade monitoring. That would put their social media lives even further away from the watchful eyes of parents or other adults.
Shear also expressed fears of the inevitability of highly intrusive monitoring, such as collecting data on students during after-school hours or off school property. A software flag would require school staff and possibly police to track a student more closely. In Bobinski's story of the suicidal student in Orange County, the original flag was set off on school property (SnapTrend's "geofencing" technology limits monitoring within a locational boundary), but investigators delved into her public posts from after-school hours as the checked into her mental health status.
Orange County isn't alone in choosing to monitor students. Schools in Alabama and California have adopted similar social-media-mining software. In Huntsville, Ala., 14 kids were expelled because of social media posts in 2014. The content of the posts was not made public, but a school board member told AL.com that expulsions result only from serious offenses involving drugs, weapons or sex. Twelve out of the 14 were black, despite the schools' population of about 40 percent black students and 60 percent white. The expulsions raised concerns from a county commissioner that social media monitoring unfairly targeted black students, according to AL.com. The case raises questions about which students are most vulnerable when digitally tracked by the school and police working in concert.
But Bobinski emphasized that the Orange County system respects student privacy and inspects student social media activity, which is public, only if software-flagged content causes concern. Online activity would only appear on a school record if it led to disciplinary action. "We've been very transparent about what we're looking for," she said. "And that is to keep our students, our staff and our facilities a safe learning environment." She was not able to confirm how long social media data is stored by SnapTrends.
For Shear, the allocation of $18,000 in school funds to implement SnapTrends that could be used for digitally minded education is particularly vexing. "[Schools] are not providing children the tools needed to protect their reputation, their privacy and to understand the law. Everything that these kids are doing online might have repercussions down the road," he said.
"I think that’s something that’s missing in the conversation," Shear continued. "I think that these companies are preying on the fears of these parents."