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School Risk Management: Monitoring Student Social Networks

Sep 12, 2016 6:30:00 AM

Teen_phone_-_crop_250.jpgTeenagers spend an average of nine hours each day “consuming” media, including social networking. The internet is a vast place, allowing students to say anything seemingly without consequences. This online activity often carries over into the physical world. In the past ten years, 9 out of 10 students who made online threats carried through with them—often at school.

So wouldn’t it make sense for schools to monitor students’ social media accounts? As with most things these days, the answer may not be as simple as you think. Is it ethical? Is it legal? Is it even effective? Those questions are beyond the scope of this blog. But we can address some foundational questions to further the conversation if your school is considering implementing a monitoring program.

How Is It Done?

Schools that monitor students’ social media accounts typically engage a third party with automated monitoring software. This software searches students’ accounts for keywords considered red flags. Whether an act of bullying or an act of general violence, the potential threats are communicated to school administrators and they decide whether or not to act on the information.


Is It Optional For Students?

It can be. Many of these programs include an opt-in feature, which allows the parents to give consent to the school using the service. But other programs monitor student activity on their public social media accounts without seeking consent. To our knowledge, no court has ruled public social media content cannot be monitored by schools. But the opt-in program is less likely to increase a school’s risk of liability for the monitoring activity.


What Policies And Procedures Should A School Have In Place Around The Monitoring?

Before using any sort of watchdog program, schools should review their anti-bullying policies and consider adding provisions addressing the monitoring program:

  • Express the purpose of the monitoring program.
  • State that because administrators could be notified of many messages that aren’t true bullying, the school may miss some real instance of bullying.
  • Specify the opt-in procedures and how parents may revoke their consent.
  • Identify who is responsible for investigating possible bullying and threats that come to the school’s attention through social-media monitoring.
  • Clarify what type of message would trip an investigation.
  • Specify the steps that should be taken as part of the investigation.
  • Identify specific student activity that will justify punishment, if it is not otherwise covered by the student handbook.

What Are The Risks Of Monitoring Students’ Social Media?

Just as there are good reasons to monitor students’ social media activity, schools should also consider the following risks before undertaking such a program:

  • Monitoring student’s out-of-school activity can undermine the trust students may need to feel safe at school and to engage in their education.
  • If not handled properly, monitoring social media can lead to privacy, free speech, and possibly discrimination lawsuits against the school.
  • It could lead to students’ online behavior becoming harder to track, if students move their more sensitive conversations to different more private platforms.
  • It could create a false sense of security, that makes students or parents less likely to notice or report suspicious activity on social media.

Perhaps the most important thing about a decision to monitor students’ social media is communication. Parents should be informed well in advance of the decision and allowed to weigh in on the issue. And if a school decides to monitor social media, the basis for the decision should be clearly articulated to the community and the policies surrounding the activity should be transparent.

In the end, it’s most important that your school undertake a deliberate approach to both deciding whether to monitor social media and implementing such a decision.


Written by Gibson

Gibson is a team of risk management and employee benefits professionals with a passion for helping leaders look beyond what others see and get to the proactive side of insurance. As an employee-owned company, Gibson is driven by close relationships with their clients, employees, and the communities they serve. The first Gibson office opened in 1933 in Northern Indiana, and as the company’s reach grew, so did their team. Today, Gibson serves clients across the country from offices in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Utah.