Should Schools Monitor Students in Social Media?

Should schools monitor students in social media?

There are valid reasons that support both sides of the coin: why schools should monitor social media, as well as why schools should not monitor social media. Those who would prefer to avoid it fear that schools, by monitoring student activity on social media, are encroaching on individual rights to free speech and privacy. Meanwhile, advocates are concerned that dangerous situations which could be prevented – by monitoring social media in schools – will continue to pose a threat to student body safety.

It may have been a source of controversy when it was first introduced, but a number of schools are already actively monitoring their students’ social media.

At the risk of playing devil’s advocate, perhaps the question isn’t should schools monitor students’ social media but rather how should schools do this?

What should schools monitor to correctly identify potentially dangerous situations that need to be handled immediately? What kind of training should schools provide their staff to effectively deal with problems discovered by monitoring social media?

school security guard on patrol

School systems in Orange County, Florida are already monitoring student activity by tracking mentions of keywords related to cutting, suicide threats and cyber bullying with the help of social media monitoring tools. Social media monitoring works by tracking mentions of specified keywords and phrases in social media and across the web. Tools like Brand24 can also be set up to alert users (such as school faculty or security staff) immediately whenever their keywords are used online, so staff members can then look into potentially dangerous situations for further investigation.

Some harmful situations that students face today include cyber bullying, school shootings, bomb threats, and increasing depression and suicide rates. The numbers for suicide among youth are shockingly grim. According to the CDC (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 10-14, the second among persons aged 15-34, the fourth among persons aged 35-44, the fifth among persons aged 45-54 years, the eighth among persons 55-64 years, and the seventeenth among persons aged 65 years and older.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-14 year olds.

It’s not an overstatement to say that social media use has grown to be an essential part of our daily routines. As it has become increasingly common for students (and not only) to share their opinions and other personal details online, the rest of our lives have also become more ‘public’ than they used to be. This makes it easier to monitor certain types of activity today – specifically, for schools to monitor students on social media. But it doesn’t mean that monitoring in general didn’t already exist before social media came into play.

How were schools monitoring students before social media?

Friendly observations

Whether subconsciously or on purpose, it wasn’t uncommon for students and faculty to notice each other’s habits and any changes in behavior. Even the type of food in somebody’s lunch box.school lunch of carrots and celery

As a student, I went through a brief ‘carrot sticks + celery’ phase, where I prepared a box full of these raw vegetables for lunch every day. A week into this phase, I was called in by the school guidance counselor to discuss my diet and the dangers of eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. After a brief conversation that consisted mostly of me being asked if I thought of myself as ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny’ (I responded with ‘no, just too short’ – she was not amused) and telling me that I should eat more, I was dismissed and returned to class. I later learned that a friend of mine had noticed my new lunch menu and was concerned, so she asked the guidance counselor to have a chat with me.

Monitoring happens in various forms and in daily life, not just in social media.

Parental supervision

In other cases, it’s definitely not unusual for parents to keep an eye on strange activity, especially when it involves their children.father playing with daughter on school grounds

I recall another incident from school, where a friend of mine absentmindedly left her computer unattended while still logged into her e-mail account at home. Her father stumbled upon some flirtatious e-mails between her and one of our teachers… the school administration was notified and we ended up with a substitute for the rest of the school year. We never saw this teacher again.

Monitoring can easily take more than one form.

How does monitoring social media in schools affect student privacy and the right to free speech?

Monitoring social media is not quite the same as policing social media.

The practice of social media monitoring itself is based on paying attention to the public usage (not hacking into e-mail accounts and accessing private messages) of certain keywords and phrases online. For schools monitoring social media, these keywords could alert them to potentially harmful instances of bullying among students, dangerous cases of depression and suicide, child predators, inappropriate relationships with faculty, and other forms of abuse or violence.

Advocates of monitoring social media in schools prioritize the early detection and prevention of potentially dangerous situations, though concerns regarding the censure of personal opinions and free speech have been raised. Generally speaking, schools monitoring social media should be focused on the safety of their student bodies (emphasis on should) rather than policing personal opinions.

Yes, sometimes people don’t take social media very seriously and use it as an outlet to vent and say irresponsible things. Or they make ‘jokes’ that are actually more terrifying than funny.

student social media post threatening to shoot up a kindergarten

According to research from non-profit organization ESSN (Educator’s School Safety Network), the frequency of bomb threats directed at schools has grown in recent years.

The total number of school-based bomb threats and incidents in the 2016-2017 school years (829) is a 27% increase from the 2012-2013 years.

Reasons for the increase are unclear, though research shows that most bomb threats are coming from social media.

How do you know if a threat is real or just a prank? Where do you draw the line?

There isn’t really a cut and dry way to tell, but the fear of history repeating itself (such as with the tragedies that occurred in Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and the Newtown school ) is enough to keep many people on edge. That’s why police officials have been observed treating threats of school violence on social media as real and credible sources. And cases of cyberstalking and cyberbullying connected to suicide among 12-year-olds (suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-14 year olds) are certainly no laughing matter.

Should schools monitor students’ social media?

In this former student’s humble opinion, students have long been ‘monitored’ in person (although, in a somewhat more limited capacity). Whether it’s other fellow students having noticed the unusual eating habits of their friends or peers, or concerned parents who have surreptitiously gained access to their children’s email accounts, our daily activities have never really gone completely unnoticed.Students casually looking at pictures of their peers

The advent of smartphones and social media have only made monitoring easier. There’s a little bit of an exhibitionist in many of us; people love to document their activities on social media. We ‘check in’ to various locations; we openly ask for recommendations; we share photos of our latest adventures (even what we ate for breakfast); we engage in online conversations and create countless threads about buzzworthy news, gossip, and our favorite or least favorite products or services. To be honest, we don’t exactly make it difficult for people to ‘follow’ (aka monitor) us. Especially students.

And much like gossip has the potential to spread to the very person that it’s about, the same goes for our posts on social media. The only difference is, gossip can fade away, but documented posts on social media are much more difficult to erase.

The topic is not without controversy, and raises even further questions. How long should schools store data from monitoring students on social media? Should employers also monitor employee activity on social media? (I’m almost certain that Domino’s would be in favor of this, given the massive social media fail that their PR department had to deal with after videos of their employees performing lewd acts with their pizzas were posted on YouTube.)

What are your thoughts on the matter? Should schools monitor students in social media?



  • It’s a good plan if teachers seek over students over the Facebook or social media for their activity. But it’s time taking though.

    • Chia-Luen Lee

      Thanks for your input MuserIndia! I agree – I think it would require dedicated resources (best to have someone who prioritizes this task). Maybe not a teacher, but other dedicated staff. Otherwise, like you said, it would be pretty time-consuming to monitor all students on social media. A media monitoring tool (like Brand24) would save a lot of time because notifications can be set up to alert you as soon as any ‘sensitive’ keywords are mentioned by students online. But it’s still a good idea to have someone who is responsible for going through the mentions. Since they would be trained to deal with this specifically, they would have a better idea of what poses a real threat. In general, setting up something like this isn’t exactly a ‘small’ task, but it’s worth it if it can prevent tragedies from occurring.