Forget about the NSA and its PRISM program, online spying is hitting a little closer to home these days and it’s not just affecting your personal information. Now schools are getting in on the act, and their target is your children and what they’re posting on social media. But is this the newest way to combat cyberbullying, or an invasion of a minor’s privacy?

Geo Listening, a “social network monitoring service has been contracted by school districts around the country to keep tabs on what kids are posting online. The company sees itself as a partner with schools, allowing administrators to focus on the students themselves while Geo Listening keeps track of the technology. The company provides services to public and private schools and institutions, from elementary school through college. According to their website: “Geo Listening works by providing actionable daily reports to designated school administrators and staff, using a robust tier methodology.” The report takes into account the frequency and severity of a student’s posts relative to categories such as cyberbullying, vandalism, and substance abuse, among others.

But what about privacy? Geo Listening claims that all of the individual posts that they monitor on social networks have already been made public by the students themselves. What that means is that they are only checking tweets, status updates, and Instagram photos that anyone could see anyway because the privacy settings are set to ‘public.'  While technically there doesn’t appear to be any legal privacy violation to this type of monitoring, I think there are pros and cons to a service like this.

I regularly speak to students about social media responsibility, and I am well aware of the types of things that kids are putting online these days. And with a new social network popping up almost weekly, it can be very difficult for a parent to get their arms around what activities their children are engaging in on the internet. This challenge gets magnified when you put kids together in a school setting with smartphones readily accessible and too many different influencers just a desk or two away. So I understand that schools are trying to be proactive in their efforts to prevent potentially harmful situations and create a safe environment for all students.

BUT, as with the NSA spying scandal where details are still coming out about the extent of the government’s reach, I think it’s a slippery slope for schools as well. Right now only public posts are being monitored, but it’s a short jump to searching students’ emails for specific keywords or some other blatant privacy violation. And while kids are notoriously lazy when it comes to checking their privacy settings on social networks, once the monitoring is divulged (and it should be), kids can just lock their accounts down, thus rendering the service ineffective anyway.

Ultimately, even with all of the technological advances we have to connect with and monitor what our kids are doing, none is a substitute for good parenting. And while it does take a village, does the end really justify the means in this case? In my opinion, spending resources for better education on the dangers and consequences of negative social media behavior could prevent the need to spy in the first place.

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