When schools provide kids with free laptops, there is usually one big string attached: the ability to see everything a student does on that laptop. While that seems a bit creepy, school administrators say their ability to peer into students' devices has a big upside: suicide prevention.
NPR reports that school districts who have put a monitoring program called GoGuardian on their Chromebooks—which then monitors Google searches, among other things—have flagged multiple students who showed via browsing behavior that they might have an interest in hurting themselves.
For example, Ken Yeh, a director of technology at Ontario Christian Schools in Southern California, told NPR that he got an alert through the system that a student had searched for "suicide and several related terms," and that he "then went in to view the student's browsing history." He alerted the principal and the guidance counselor and that "led to a positive intervention." Via NPR:
[I]n the three years that GoGuardian has been in use at this school, this type of incident has happened three separate times, [Yeh] says. And GoGuardian says that across the 2,000 districts where its software is in use, it has heard similar anecdotes dozens of times.
In a promotional video the company filmed at an industry event, where people raved about being able to monitor students' every digital move, another school administrator says that his school has "intervened on probably 4 or 5 kids that have wanted to commit suicide."
Ostensibly, the security software is meant to help schools recover laptops if they are lost or stolen, and prevent students from accessing "inappropriate sites." Yet, the company that sells the software now includes in its marketing materials that it can be used by school administrators to "easily detect serious matters such as bullying and intended suicide." So the laptops have morphed into a new way to surveil students outside of the classroom.
On the upside, yay for protecting kids! Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people, and attempts to prevent it are admirable. But by doing it this way, it means student have no privacy when using a school-owned device—which may be the only digital device to which they have access. Via NPR:
Carolyn Stone, ethics chair of the American School Counselor Association, says that she was "taken aback" to hear that student Web searches done at home were triggering interventions by school staff…
[S]he worries about school staffers without mental health training having access to what are, essentially, students' private thoughts.
"On the surface, it sounds like a very good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to student suicide," Stone says. "But this is something that sounds like it could spin out of control. … It's a slippery slope."
Computer monitoring has caused problems before when schools have overreached in their spying, such as when a Pennsylvania school had to pay half a million dollars for activating its students' webcams and taking thousands of pictures of them. The Lower Merion School District's surreptitious photo-taking via webcam came to light after a student was falsely accused of drug dealing based on a photo taken of him eating Mike & Ikes.
Surveillance can lead to those kinds of mistakes, if the person looking at the evidence isn't a drug expert or a mental health professional. For example, a student might be flagged by this software if he were researching a thrash 80s band called Suicidal Tendencies, with no intentions to perform said act on himself.
But such is the experience of being a young computer user in America. According to Pew, 61 percent of parents of teens go through their internet web history, while 48 percent go through their smartphone messages and call history.
At least kids now have a reason to go to the library: unsurveilled computers.