The surveillance of our youth

Big BrotherLike many school districts, the Southeast Polk School District in Pleasant Hill, Iowa monitors the Web usage of its students on district-provided computers for inappropriate activity. And like some school districts, Southeast Polk also uses a monitoring service that sends weekly emails to parents summarizing their students’ Internet search history. This raises some difficult issues because we know that young people need space away from the heavy thumb of adults for healthy identity formation and the development of self. 

Why do teenagers go to the mall, or congregate at the park, or cruise the strip, or gravitate toward the online spaces where adults aren’t? Because they need spaces that are separate from us. Should we monitor every single book or online resource that our children read? Should we use biometric school lunch checkout systems so that we can see exactly what our children eat for lunch each day? Should we dig through our children’s belongings and rooms every morning after they leave for school to see if they’re doing something that they shouldn’t? Should we install RFID and GPS tags into our children’s clothing and backpacks so that we can track them in real time? Should we slap lifelogging cameras on our kids and review them every evening? Should we install keystroke logging software or monitor everything that youth search for on the Internet? Which of these makes you uncomfortable and which doesn’t?

We can think of numerous reasons why students might search the Internet for things that they don’t want their parents to know about, just like they talk daily about things that they don’t want their parents to know about. For instance, perhaps there is a gay boy who’s struggling to make sense of things but is not ready to come out to his family yet. Or a teenage girl with liberal politics in an ultraconservative family. Or a young couple that is pregnant and searching for information and options before they tell their parents. Or a teen who’s in a spat with a peer but doesn’t want clueless adults stepping in and creating more drama. Or any teen or tween with normal adolescent concerns who just needs some information, resources, or nonlocal empathy and connection. Do these students deserve some space? Do they deserve a presumption of privacy? Or should they immediately and automatically be outed by school software?

danah boyd asks some important questions about youth privacy, including Who has the right to monitor youth? and Which actors continue to assert power over youth? She also notes that:

Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. . . . How do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them? . . . How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy?

Similarly, First Monday notes:

The right to privacy is stipulated in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [and] Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as numerous international and regional human rights treaties and conventions [and has been found to be a protected Constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court]. The right to privacy essentially protects the integrity of the individual and his or her home, family, and correspondence. A common denominator for the different areas of privacy is access control: thus control over what others know about us; control over private decisions and actions; and control over a physical space. The right to privacy builds on the presumption that a zone of autonomy around the individual is central to individual freedom and self-determination.

Should school districts be complicit in the hypersurveillance of our young people? What messages do we send our students when we monitor their every action and send out weekly reports? Are we creating digital social graphs for our children and then placing them in the hands of commercial vendors? Are we intentionally instituting oppositional and distrustful stances against our own students? Are we fostering the creation of graduates who will shrug at the infringement of their civil liberties as adults because their families and educators have done so for years?

I wonder if there’s an opt out for families that don’t want to Big Brother or helicopter parent their children…

See also

Image credit: Big Brother is watching you, Photon

10 Responses to “The surveillance of our youth”

  1. I have thought about this for some time. I am so thankful that my parents don’t know every little thing I did as I was growing up. I think about the tests I didn’t do well on; the assignments I didn’t turn in; the questions I asked; the papers I wrote; the books I read; the experiences I had in clubs, at camps, at friends’ houses, and wandering around my home town; the things I wrote in my journal; the courses I chose to take both in high school and college. Thank goodness those things were my business and my experiences and my mistakes to make without parental prying eyes. At what point did we decide that children are not allowed their own spaces, their own thoughts, and their own experiences free from supervision? It scares me, because only through our own choices and experiences do we become productive adults.

    • An old-fashioned blog post exchange! Woo hoo!

      Thanks, Doug, for continuing the conversation. Your next-to-last sentence is one of the things I’m most worried about:

      “Will this create a have and have-not situation in which students with non-school means of information access will be able to satisfy their curiosities without fear of being discovered; whereas students without non-school access will not be able to gather good information?”

      The answer, of course, is YES.

  2. Many of these tools are embraced by district leaders in the “spirit of school safety”. Thanks for providing such a thoughtful commentary to help well-intended policy-makers consider a broader context to the tech solutions that exist!

  3. I find it odd that people get very threatened about surveillance when it’s the school administration, parents, or government that gets the information, but no opinion about it when corporations are collecting information on a much larger scale with almost no oversight, both formal (FERPA exemptions) and informal (Google tracking of student searches, emails, documents, mouse clicks, hover times, etc.). I don’t disagree with what you have said, but in light of articles like: we should be looking at a much bigger picture/problem

  4. Alexander Zachreson Reply January 21, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    This is an interesting point of view. It’s clear that in some places parents have a tendency to over protect their children with whatever means are available to them. On the other side of the spectrum there are many parents who are not involved enough with their children’s schooling, who would never even read a surveillance email were it sent to them. Ultimately it’s parents themselves who make the choice: do I read the email? Do I look at the cell phone history? On some level surveillance technology will always be available, so maybe parents can find a comfortable middle ground with what the choose to use or not use.

    • Thanks for your comment, Alexander. You said:

      “On some level surveillance technology will always be available”

      That may be true. But I’m not sure that means that public schools have to use them, either at all or in certain directions?

  5. I believe that there is a medium that needs to be reached. If students are using school equipment during school hours, the use should be monitored, especially in the younger age range. This is an accountability piece to help students stay on task, similar to assigning work in a textbook and monitoring the room for off-task behavior.
    In off school settings, that is the students’ responsibility to self regulate with help from age-appropriate settings as to accessibly of some types of websites. As to sending home reports per use, I believe that should be saved as a discipline measure and not as a policy.

  6. Great post, Scott.

    We should be encouraging kids to be intellectually curious. Heavy-handed surveillance doesn’t allow them the space to do that.

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