Security software side effect: Monitoring student mental health

'It is a way for us to proactively intervene when they are looking for help.'

A computer security program unintentionally serves as an early warning system for possible student suicides, Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR.

Startup GoGuardian enables administrators to control content on school-provided computers. This includes blocking websites, such as those with movie-streaming, online games, pornography, and hacking threats. It also allows administrators to track students' browsing activity on those devices, regardless of whether the students are at school or at home. And when students are searching for potentially troubling content, such as suicide and related terms, administrators are alerted.

In the three years Ontario Christian Schools, a K-12 private school, has used GoGuardian, they've had three early warning pings about students at potential risk for suicide, says Ken Yeh, the school's director of technology.

"It was a little unexpected. We weren't thinking about this as a usage for GoGuardian," he says.

But the software became "a way for us to proactively intervene when they are looking for help. And so we feel a good sense of responsibility in trying to look out for the welfare of our students," Yeh says.

In the Neosho School District, the pings come once a semester on average, according to Chromebook Coordinator Rodney Griffin. And GoGuardian officials say they've heard dozens of anecdotes about similar incidents in the about 2,000 districts that use the technology.

Suicide is the third most common cause of death among people ages 10 to 24. Yet identifying those at risk remains difficult.

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While monitoring student searches may provide a way to do that, experts say it also comes with complicated privacy and training issues.

"Are we conditioning children to accept constant monitoring as the normal state of affairs in everyday life?" asks Elana Zeide, a research fellow at New York University's Information Law Institute.

She also points out that low-income students may be subject to more surveillance than their wealthier classmates, because school-owned devices are more likely to be their sole connection to the Internet.

And the information goes to administrators who are not necessarily trained in mental health, says Carolyn Stone, ethics chair of the American School Counselor Association. "On the surface, it sounds like a very good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to student suicide," Stone says. "But this is something that sounds like it could spin out of control" (Kamenetz, "nprEd," NPR, 3/28).

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