Student Activity Monitoring and Analysis: Student Privacy Threat or Potentially Lifesaving Intervention?

two teams of people playing tug-of-war.

As technology becomes an ever-present part of our lives, so do concerns about privacy. Given the increase in personal information being shared and stored digitally, these concerns are valid and have prompted critical policy discussions. Regulations including the California Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003 and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) were enacted to address these very issues and ensure our privacy is maintained in an increasingly interconnected world. 

Similarly, student activity monitoring and analysis, a technology being used increasingly in K-12 schools to foster safe and focused learning environments, is drawing scrutiny from student privacy advocates and policymakers. Born out of the need to keep students safe from inappropriate and potentially harmful online content, student activity monitoring and analysis can help schools detect signs that a student may be at-risk of depression, self-harm, suicide, bullying, or violence. As concerns about student privacy come to light, however, some question if schools must make a choice between protecting students’ safety and wellbeing or protecting students’ privacy. 

Why do schools monitor students’ online activities?

The Internet has become pervasive in our workplaces, our homes, and in our institutions of learning. Given the access to resources and information the worldwide web provides, its use is an integral part of students’ education and a powerful tool to support learning and engagement when used responsibly.

We all know, however, that not all content available on the Internet is educational or appropriate for kids, such as pornography or hyper-violent imagery. As the Internet increasingly played a role in students’ learning during the 1990s, and as its capabilities and offerings expanded, it became evident that students also needed to be shielded from the harmful and inappropriate content they might find. This led to the enactment of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000.

Why do schools monitor students’ online activities?

CIPA recommends the use of web filtering technology to provide these protections and requires it of schools and libraries who receive federally funded E-Rate discounts for technology and Internet access. For these reasons, the vast majority of K-12 schools use web filters on school-issued devices to protect their students online. 

School web filtering provides a safer online environment for students. But web filtering only gives schools the ability to either allow or block online content. An adjacent technology called student activity monitoring gives schools even greater peace of mind that they’re keeping their students safe. 

Student activity monitoring came about when those who pioneered school web filtering saw the opportunity to further bolster student safety by going beyond simple content blocking to proactively supporting student mental health. Recognizing that students use the Internet to search for information about pretty much everything, these technologists, also parents themselves, saw the potential to use advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to alert K-12 educators to early warning signs that a student might be at risk of harming themselves or others. 

Fast forward to today, and we’re navigating a youth mental health crisis that was only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, threats to student safety and wellbeing have also sadly grown in frequency and severity. Providing safe and supportive learning environments have never been more critical to our students’ wellbeing. 

Student activity monitoring and analysis is helping school leaders across the U.S., as well as increasingly in the UK and other countries, preventatively support their students and provide potentially lifesaving interventions. Using a tool like Securly Aware, school personnel are able to identify students who demonstrate signs of depression, grief, self-harm, suicide, bullying, and violence. In doing so, under-resourced student safety and wellness staff—who typically have responsibility for hundreds of students—are able to identify which students are demonstrating signs of risk so they can investigate and, when warranted, intervene in a dangerous situation before it gets worse. 

 A quote from a school sharing an example of how Securly helped them intervene to help a struggling student

Concerns about student privacy center on irresponsible usage of student activity monitoring

While student online activity monitoring has proven effective at identifying at-risk students— and aiding in potentially lifesaving situations—some question if the use of this technology is an invasion of student privacy. The concern is that if schools are able to monitor students’ online activities, they could potentially use this information for unintended purposes.

A Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) study found that 57% of teachers and 61% of parents have concerns about student activity monitoring if it’s used or shared out of context or for disciplinary reasons. Approximately half of teachers and parents cite concerns that online monitoring could be used to “out” LGBTQ+ students, for example. 

These concerns are valid. Whenever information is gathered on an individual, there’s the potential for that information to be misused. The adults responsible for student safety and wellbeing should question and validate the purpose and intent behind student activity monitoring and analysis. When they do, they agree that the benefits of monitoring student activities for the purpose of supporting student safety and wellbeing outweigh any potential risks to privacy.

Most parents and teachers believe the benefits of student online activity monitoring outweigh privacy concerns

Even teachers and parents who express concerns about the potential for misuse of monitoring data believe it provides more benefits than risks. The same CDT study found that 78% of teachers agree that student online activity monitoring keeps students safe by identifying potentially harmful online behavior, and 68% agree that the benefits of student activity monitoring outweigh concerns about student privacy. 

Parents feel the same way, with 66% agreeing that monitoring keeps students safe, and 62% agreeing that the benefits outweigh the concerns. Half of the students surveyed also indicated that they’re either very or somewhat comfortable with schools monitoring their online activities. 

Statistic stating that 78% of teachers and 75% of parents believe student activity monitoring keeps students safe.
 Statistic stating that 66% of teachers and 62% of parents believe the benefits of student activity monitoring outweigh privacy concerns.

The ultimate takeaway is this: Monitoring and analysis of students’ online activities is an effective and responsible student safety tool when used for the right reasons. Those reasons include identifying signs that a student may be contemplating self-harm, suicide, or violence, or experiencing or perpetrating bullying. Given that children’s mental health is in a state of crisis, these issues deserve to be prioritized. 

How student activity monitoring can help schools address 4 big challenges

Students’ search behaviors and online activities can provide insight into their emotional wellbeing that might otherwise go unnoticed by teachers and other professionals. By gaining visibility into critical indicators of student wellness, schools can get in front of some of their biggest challenges, including student mental health, cyberbullying, and school violence.

1. Support Student Mental Health

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry , and Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared children’s mental health a national emergency. The World Health Organization estimates that one in seven adolescents experience at least one mental health condition, including emotional and behavioral disorders, suicide, and self-harm. 

Text stating that an estimated 1 in 7 adolescents experience mental health conditions that go unrecognized and untreated.

Student activity monitoring alerts schools to early warning signs about students who may be suffering in silence by detecting signs of depression and grief, as well as self-harm and suicide. Many of these students may not be suffering in outwardly obvious ways or capable of accessing the help they need. Early detection and proactive intervention give these students the opportunity to get the support they may be afraid or unable to ask for so they can heal and get well. 

2. Stop Cyberbullying

Pew Research reports that 59% of teens have been victims of cyberbullying. Research conducted by the National Crime Prevention Council found that only one in 10 teens will tell a parent or trusted adult that they’re being cyberbullied. Furthermore, it’s also known that students who are bullied, whether online or in person, are at increased risk of developing depression and contemplating or attempting suicide. 

Text stating that 59% of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying according to a Pew Research survey.

Given the risk factors, many schools implemented a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. But these policies rely on being able to know when bullying is occurring. Student activity monitoring can help by surfacing otherwise undetectable signs of bullying, and giving school staff the ability to effectively investigate and intervene before the situation escalates.

3. Prevent School Violence

As of October 2022, there have been at least 96 school shooting incidents in the U.S. Most if not all schools now have physical safety measures in place to safeguard staff and students in the event of an active shooter situation. 

But what can we do to identify warning signs before a tragic situation occurs? According to the National Institute of Justice, in more than 75% of the school shootings they examined, the attacker had told a friend, schoolmate, or sibling about a possible attack before taking action.

Text sourced from a U.S. Secret Service Report stating that young people may exhibit obvious warning signs that they need help.

Student activity monitoring can reveal early signs that a student may be contemplating a violent act. Monitoring can also uncover signs that a student is being bullied, or is contemplating self-harm, both of which can be precursors to violent behavior. These warning signs give school personnel the opportunity to investigate and intervene before a bad situation gets worse. Even a single email, DM, or social media post that is flagged has the potential to save lives. 

Student activity monitoring and analysis can reveal early signs that a student may be contemplating a violent act. Monitoring can also uncover signs that a student is being bullied, or is contemplating self-harm, both of which can lead to violent behavior. These warning signs give school personnel the opportunity to investigate and intervene before a bad situation escalates to a potentially fatal situation. Even a single email, DM, or social media post that is flagged has the potential to save lives. 

4. Minimize Staff Strain 

Student monitoring and analysis also helps resource-strapped schools more effectively support their students. The latest advancements in student activity monitoring go beyond flagged alerts to help student support teams and school counselors proactively monitor their students’ wellness. New student wellness monitoring capabilities make it possible to understand how each student is doing. You can easily see changes in a student’s wellness level, helping you identify the students at greatest risk. At a time when school counselors are in short supply, student wellness monitoring helps counselors focus where they’re needed most and helps schools better support student wellbeing with the resources they have today. 

How to ensure student online activity monitoring is done responsibly

While most agree that online student activity monitoring is beneficial, concerns around student privacy remain valid. While online monitoring solutions were designed specifically to strengthen student safety, we must remain vigilant to ensure they’re used only for this purpose. Online monitoring and analysis software providers have a responsibility to combat the potential for  misuse, whether inadvertent or intentional, by tirelessly innovating their technologies and refining their practices to ensure student privacy, as well as student safety and wellbeing are top priorities. Yet not all monitoring software is created equal.

For example, many monitoring providers rely on AI technology to identify concerning activities. But their techniques, like keyword matching, are too simplistic and produce unreliable results. 

For example, keyword matching can’t distinguish between the search query “how do I commit suicide” and the search query “which country has the highest suicide rate.” Because it is only looking for the word “suicide” and not employing other technologies to infer sentiment or understand the use of the word in context, keyword matching will flag both of these searches. 

This is where most monitoring software falls short. It will unnecessarily flag searches that aren’t concerning at all, which can cause students to be singled out for activities that are harmless, as well as create false alarms for already busy IT teams and school staff.

Some monitoring providers opt for human content reviewers over technology. This practice presents even more privacy risk. Using humans to review volumes of student online activities creates the unnecessary exposure of potentially sensitive student data. Furthermore, technology exists that can mitigate unwanted exposure. Responsible monitoring providers rely on technology to identify and quarantine nudity in images, for example, to ensure that a student’s privacy is protected.   

Go beyond the basics to make monitoring more responsible and reliable

Ensuring monitoring is responsible and effective starts with focusing on the goal: to support the safety and wellbeing of all students. Unlike traditional student activity monitoring, Securly Aware monitors student wellness levels to proactively identify students who may be struggling. This empowers districts and schools to support their students’ safety and wellbeing responsibly and proactively. They’re able to reliably identify signs of grief, bullying, violence, self-harm, and suicide—so they can intervene before the worst happens.

 A quote form a school sharing how Securly helped them intervene with a student who was contemplating suicide.

Securly Aware relies on advanced technologies, including K-12 education’s longest-learning AI engine, advanced multi-step analysis of online searches and activities, and proprietary risk assessment technology, giving schools invaluable tools to support students’ safety and wellbeing. These differentiators play a critical role in student privacy, as well as student outcomes. Securly Aware prioritizes student data privacy and security to significantly minimize the potential exposure of sensitive student data. At the same time, the potential to save student lives increases dramatically. 

What schools can do to support student safety and wellness, while protecting student privacy

Student online activity monitoring and analysis was developed to protect students from threats and risks in our increasingly digital world. When used for this intended reason, it can be an invaluable tool that helps schools prioritize student safety and wellbeing. But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. 

Ultimately, both the monitoring software provider and the educational institution share the responsibility for ensuring that monitoring is done responsibly and for the right reasons. Monitoring providers should be leading the way by continually developing and espousing best practices, as well as tirelessly improving their technologies to address evolving threats and challenges. Likewise, educators must also ensure they’re maintaining student privacy and equity when using technology tools to support student safety and wellbeing.

Districts and schools using (or considering using) student monitoring can use these guidelines: 

  1. Be upfront with your community that you’re monitoring students’ online activity.
    Use this opportunity to educate about the ways monitoring supports student safety and wellness. Explain how monitoring can help you identify students who may be struggling, so you can investigate and intervene earlier. Invite a dialogue to answer questions and address concerns.

  2. Thoroughly train staff in the proper and responsible use of monitoring.
    Any district or school considering or using monitoring has a responsibility to both educate their staff about its purpose and train them in correct and acceptable usage. Those who know better do better. When you ensure your staff understand the purpose of monitoring and are trained to use it responsibly, your entire school community benefits from a safe and equitable environment. Responsible monitoring providers will support you by offering training and support to help your staff use their tools effectively and equitably.  
  3. Ensure your monitoring provider is also prioritizing student privacy.
    The best way to protect student privacy is to use a monitoring software provider that also prioritizes student privacy protection. Ensure that your provider is relying on discrete and proven technology tools to identify risks and threats, as well as using sensitive data collection methods. Question their processes to ensure sensitive content is controlled and access is restricted to only those who need it. For example, ask how and when human review of content is used. Also, inquire about advanced capabilities such as quarantining of nude images to ensure sensitive content can’t be shared or circulated. For the ultimate in security and privacy, ensure your provider’s practices, policies, procedures, and operations meet SOC 2 Type 2 standards.
Student Wellness Monitoring

Strike the right balance between student privacy and student safety

While some may suggest that you need to make a choice between ensuring student privacy or monitoring students’ online activities to identify students who are at risk of harming themselves or others, you can successfully do both. Securly Aware helps schools maintain students’ privacy, while also prioritizing student safety and wellbeing

Securly Aware gives overstretched student support teams the ability to identify at-risk students so they can investigate quickly and intervene when warranted. When your district or school is supported by monitoring that encompasses student privacy, as well as their safety and wellness, you can: 

  • Proactively support your students’ mental health
  • Help students who might otherwise be suffering in silence
  • Identify students who are at risk of self-harm, suicide, bullying, and violence 
  • Intervene at the first sign of trouble—before the worst happens

To learn more about how monitoring can help you support your students, read the blog.

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