DA op-ed: The surveillance of our youth

By: | April 8, 2019
Scott McLeod writes the Dangerously Irrelevant blog.

Scott McLeod writes the Dangerously Irrelevant blog.

Like many school districts, the Southeast Polk Community 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 development.

Why do teenagers go to the mall, congregate at the park, cruise the strip or gravitate toward online spaces that don’t often include adults? 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 include radio-frequency identification and GPS tags in 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 the footage every evening? Should we install keystroke-logging software or monitor everything our kids search for on the internet? Do any of these ideas make you uncomfortable?

A presumption of privacy

We can think of numerous reasons why students may 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. Any teens or tweens may just need 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?


Read: FETC Voices in Technology: Monitoring for signs of harm


On her blog, Microsoft researcher danah boyd asks some important questions about youth privacy, including: Who has the right to monitor youth? Which actors continue to assert power over youth?

She also notes: “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, the First Monday blog 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 ben 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 actions 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 who don’t want to act like Big Brother.


This article appeared on Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant blog, and is used by permission.

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