This is a new development, and it’s a big one: A school district in California has hired a firm to monitor the public postings of its 13,500 students. It will analyze the students’ content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and some other sites, looking for hints of “cyberbullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy,” according to a story in the Glendale News Press.
I can totally understand why this would appeal to parents. Who among us hasn’t worried about what’s happening in our kids’ lives at some point? And the company claims that in a pilot program last year, it intervened with a suicidal student.
But here’s the rub: If, as a kid, I thought that all the grown-ups in my life were so worried about my mental state that they were frantically scanning my every interaction for evidence of my fragility — or cruelty — it would cause me to hate and despair. It’s like telling kids, “I have to stand next to you at the party, hon. It’s for your own good.” Excuse me while I guzzle the Drano.
If what kids need for a healthy sense of self is someone who really believes in them, behold the opposite. This surveillance program is treating 13,500 students as if they were all in some kind of mental facility where everyone must be monitored or as if they were part of a terrorist cell.
The district’s superintendent is quoted as saying, “The whole purpose is student safety” — which sounds strikingly familiar. Maybe the National Security Agency employs the same speechwriter? Anyway, I have no doubt the superintendent is sincere, but cry- ing “Safety!” is the magic napalm so many interests deploy these days. How can an adult refuse to buy a product or service when it promises a new level of child protection? It’s not only appealing; it’s almost blackmail. Because now, if anything untoward were to happen without your having the program in place, someone could always demand: “Why didn’t you see this coming?”
That’s a tough question to answer, which is why I’m betting this service spreads. Unfortunately, it’s also a question based on the most corrosive idea of our time — the idea that if we just gather every bit of information about absolutely everything and everyone, then (and only then) our kids can be safe. Hence, nanny cams. Hence, the “smart diaper” in prototype that monitors the chemical content of a baby’s every pee. Hence, GPS trackers on kids, background checks for field trip chaperons, parental spyware to read kids’ texts, and about a billion articles about a billion evils we should be on the lookout for every day in every food, toy, product, place and person our children encounter. Know everything! Your child’s very life depends on it!
Society is saying that anything less than omniscience is putting our kids at risk.
And I’m saying that the big risk to kids today is a society that doesn’t think they’re ever safe or competent on their own.