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Monday, December 9, 2013

Bullies Beware: Schools Hire Social Media Monitors

Students work on laptops in the library. (Enokson/Flickr)

Some schools are hiring companies to monitor students’ social media use. (Enokson/Flickr)

School bullying used to take place in hallways and classrooms. Now much of it happens online, beyond the gaze of teachers, coaches and administrators.

The problem has taken on new meaning since the case of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who was bullied by classmates on social media. She killed herself in September.

Some companies are coming up with ways to intercept these conversations by monitoring public posts on social media to look for students in distress.

One such company, Geo Listening, was founded by Chris Frydrych. The California technology services company works with schools and school districts across the country to monitor students’ social media use.

Frydrych joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss his new company and how it could help reduce bullying and suicide.

Interview Highlights: Chris Frydrych

On why monitoring social media is useful

“Students have moved their conversation to the technological world and it’s actually a much more engaging conversation. But it’s not heard anymore, so you can’t be disciplined in a school because the teachers and the administrators aren’t seeing the actual lead-up to an action, maybe a fight or something else more disturbing. So what we’re there to do is to bubble caption over the children’s head so that the people that are there every day, in a physical sense, have the ability to know which kid needs to have a hello said to them.”

On why parents cannot fulfill this role

“It’s impossible for any single person to be able to see everything. We talk about the self-harming teens. During school hours, we’re seeing those students post once every three minutes during class time. And in the late night hours, we see some of them post once a minute for hours on end. And they’re in these environments where there are 1,200, 2,000 other young people just like them.”

On whether this invades children’s privacy

“When Geo Listening works with a school or school district, we don’t actually change any of their policy and we only report things that are in the public domain. A lot of schools’ codes of conduct require students to act with a level of dignity and respect. The discussion of free speech is not between Geo Listening and the courts—it’s between the interpretation of what a student has posted or done… There are different states across the country that have different rules as to where you can take action on content… We have given access to kids to a much more dangerous vehicle than an automobile and we’ve given them no guidance, no governance and it’s time for us to step up and be the adults that we’re supposed to be for them.”

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And we all know that bullying has moved from the hallways of schools to social media. One recent tragic result: Rebecca Sedwick, that 12-year-old Florida girl who killed herself after online bullying. Now, schools and school districts - like California's Glendale Unified School District - are hiring companies to monitor social media, and alert administrators when they see a problem. Glendale administrators took this action after two students committed suicide last year.

Chris Frydrych is the founder and CEO of Geo Listening. That's the company Glendale contracted. And Chris, you've said that you're not just seeing bullying, but you're seeing the result of bullying, a talk of suicide?

CHRIS FRYDRYCH: Yeah. We see a lot of despair, a lot of self-harming youth.

YOUNG: Well - and how do you do it? Because I've read that you use a lot of technology and a lot humans, people.

FRYDRYCH: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. It's probably about 20 percent technology. As far as the human capital goes, that's always going to be the largest portion of our company. Our analysts actually only are allowed to work four hours a day. The content can be a little tough. I know that from firsthand because I was the first analyst for our company. And as I dug into these things, my friends expressed the concern for me and my well-being because I was taking it incredibly personally and trying to do the best thing for kids.

YOUNG: Well, wait. Help us understand that. What were you reading? What were you seeing?

FRYDRYCH: On the first day of school this year, we found a young lady that had posted from the campus, saying that she was sad. And we looked at her publicly available posts, and we saw two posts from the school bus where she had posted she was almost in a fight with a girl, and punched her in the face. And the second post said: First day of school, and it's already starting again, being bullied.

The human element allows us to bring context, so that that school site administrator didn't have to go find those other two posts to understand why it was important to say hello to that young lady on that first day of school.

YOUNG: All right. I mean, you don't have some sort of technology that allows you to put a hover dome over a school district and just suck up all the social media. You're looking for Facebooks and Twitter feeds that are public?

FRYDRYCH: Yeah. We have some technologies that allow us to find certain keywords, but then that also allows us to end up on networks like Ask.fm. Ask.fm is an anonymous question-and-answer website, and we find a lot of young folks on that website that are being asked very personal questions, and they are answering them.

YOUNG: So what might - just - if you can give us an example of one you'd find disturbing.

FRYDRYCH: We found a student a few weeks ago that was being asked very direct sexual experience questions, and how far they would go. Very disturbing to see young people talking about content and opening themselves up to suggestion, as well as potential action against them by others - because the answerer is known by the audience, but the questioner is not.

YOUNG: So, look. I'm sure there are people listening to this and thinking, what? There's a company that's been hired by a school district to monitor social media of the students? You know, you've told us someone referred to you as the educational NSA, snooping. But I'm hearing how difficult this is emotionally for you. And some parents already know that sometimes, you go into social media and it's heart-stopping. You see the N word. You see the C word. You see threats. You see bullying. Make your case - to those who still, though, might not get it - why a school should hire a company to look for those things.

FRYDRYCH: Students have moved their conversation to the technological world, and it's actually a much more engaging conversation, but it's not heard anymore. So you can't be disciplined in a school because the teachers and the administrators aren't seeing the actual lead-up to an action - maybe a fight or something else more disturbing. So what we're there to do is to bubble caption over the children's head so that the people that are there every day, in a physical sense, have the ability to know which kid needs to have a hello said to them.

YOUNG: Why can't parents do this?

FRYDRYCH: It's impossible for any single person to be able to see everything. We talk about the self-harming teens. During school hours, we're seeing those students post once every three minutes during class time. And in the late-night hours, we see them post once a minute, for hours on end. And they're in these environments where there's 1,200, 2,000 other young people just like them.

YOUNG: You say you've prevented suicides?

FRYDRYCH: We don't make those statements. We have provided information to those in school districts, and they have been able to intervene on behalf of a student with all of their resources, of course - the mental health services and parents - in order to help the child realize that prolonging life is a better choice.

YOUNG: Well, and on your website, you say you prevented a school fight.

FRYDRYCH: Yes. A lot of times, we are brought in to help investigate, to find the videos that are out there, to find information that will help identify who might be a witness to something that occurred.

YOUNG: In this case, you found posts from a student who was organizing a fight off-campus, on social network. There were pictures of the student posing with guns. The school administrators intervened, fight averted. But then the kid privatized his page.

FRYDRYCH: We encourage all students to privatize their page. What it does is, it turns down the negative broadcasting capability. It gives them a chance to think about what they've posted, and then decide if that's the right thing to be out there for everyone to see.

YOUNG: Are you concerned about where you are legally, here? We know the courts have been all over the place. In September, a federal appeals court in Nevada sided with school officials after a student threatened to shoot classmates, on the website MySpace, but an Indiana court ruled that school officials violated students' free speech there when that school disciplined kids after they posted crude photos of themselves on Facebook. If you were the one who had come across that photograph, would you have alerted authorities? And if so, is that the right thing to do? Is that invading someone's privacy? The courts seem to think so.

FRYDRYCH: When Geo Listening works with a school or school district, we don't actually change any of their policy, and we only report things that are in the public domain. A lot of school codes of conduct require students to act with a level of dignity and respect. The discussion of free speech is not between Geo Listening and the courts. It's between the interpretation of what a student has posted or done.

YOUNG: In other words, you might find photos that disturb you, bring them to the school. But if the school does the disciplining, in this case, you haven't violated free speech by just pointing out to someone that, you know, there are photos that are kind of disturbing.

FRYDRYCH: That's correct. And then there are different states across the country that have different rules as to where you can take action on content. Texas evolved their law last year to where they can take action on any social media content, whether it occurs on campus or off campus. Florida, of course, has changed their law. We're starting to see it go across the country. Iowa is trying to change theirs.

YOUNG: You're for that?

FRYDRYCH: Yeah. We've given access to kids to a much more dangerous vehicle than an automobile; and we've given them no guidance, no governance. And it's time for us to step up and be the adults that we're supposed to be for them. If we're not there, then it's equal to taking down the speed limit signs on the interstate. And, you know, we all know we behave a little bit differently when the state trooper is sitting on the side of the highway, don't we?

YOUNG: Chris Frydrych, founder and CEO of Geo Listening, a technology services company hired by schools and districts to monitor kids' public posts on social media. It provoked a lot of thought. Chris, thank you.

FRYDRYCH: Thank you.

YOUNG: So invasion of privacy, or is it the same as teachers monitoring slurs on a bathroom stall? Is it a school's responsibility? Your thoughts at HEREANDNOW.org, on Facebook, facebook.com/hereandnowradio, on Twitter @hereandnow, or I'm @hereandnowrobin.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm @JEREMY HOBSON, and you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • Kathy

    Kids should not be spied on. Neither should adults. It is fairly easy to see bullies in the school system and there should be special anti-bullying programs not spying on kids on Facebook. Enough of big brother!! Too many violations of privacy!!

    • Bill H

      It is not easy to see bullying in schools. Yes, there are clues, but bullies are very good performing covert actions and whispered comments. Since the company is scanning public records, then the youth are not locking down their privacy options. Public is public.

      I think what they are doing is useful, if even only one youth is saved from murder or suicide.

    • Shawn Doolittle

      They are not reading their diaries, they are looking at their on-line public posts. They playground has been extended to social media and as parents you should make sure your kids are monitored until they are adults. Don’t pretend that they are born mature enough to negotiate life without your guidance and “protection”.

  • Michelle

    Sorry Kathy, I disagree. Adolescents are often unable to make good decisions without adult guidance. They know enough to not make threats and slurs within the earshot of a teacher, because they know they will bring down some kind of consequence. Among adults, threats and intimidation anywhere will have eventual consequences, but teens do not know enough to turn the person in to the authorities for such illegal behavior. If teens know that the authorities are listening, they will behave better.

  • Bill H

    There was a comment regarding first amendment rights. If a student has signed or acknowledged a code of conduct that prohibits bullying, then a violation on-line (or off-line) is a violation and disciplinary action is permitted.

    Some people use Edward Snowden as an example. He, however, signed a document not to reveal any information and is in violation of his signed pledge as well as Federal law.

    Should children be treated differently? More carefully, to be sure. But not allowed to run roughshod over others, ever.

  • Andy

    Chris made some really poor analogies
    We do not have a constitutionally protected right to speed that is why there are State Troopers on the side of the highway. Writing a slur on the bathroom wall is defacing school property. Writing a slur on your own notebook is freedom of speech. Posting inappropriate pics on your own facebook is differnt than postinf those pics on the school’s facebook page. Defending speech that personally find vile is the application of the first amendment it’s essence. Shifting the blame onto the school for taking action, knowing that is the logical outcome is like saying I didn’t whip any runway slaves I just told them my neighbor was part of the underground railroad. That is a apt analogy Chris.

    • Bill H

      While appropriate for adults, the same is not appropriate for children. This is the reason why children have different laws that apply for the same acts that an adult might commit. Usually, the breakpoints are 7 and 18 years of age. Ever wonder why “is charged as an adult” is such a big deal? It’s the law.

      And, it is known that the brain’s frontal cortex that regulates actions is not fully developed until age 26 (the age where car insurance rates drop). This is certainly a factor in helping your child understand what is and is not appropriate. To assume that your child is capable of discerning what is appropriate behavior at 13 is an abrogation of your responsibility as a parent.

      Different rules apply for very good reasons. To suggest that a 12 year old have an unlimited freedom to be a bully on-line does not make sense.

  • it_disqus

    I was waiting to hear a commercial for Geo Listening being a supporter of WBUR after this segment.

  • Facebook User

    Songs can
    help young children learn about kindness and tolerance.

    The song “Be
    a Buddy, not a Bully” can be heard on YouTube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Or7WPUtUnRo

  • Michael

    This piece reminded me of Lord of the Flies and the Standford Prisoner Experiment. Teachers and parents have less eyes on the internet and thus kids get to roam free in a realm lacking in social norms. Kids and adults can do horrible things when they do not have any monitoring or repercussions for their actions. I think we do need to have deeper talk with kids, teens and adults on how we best treat others and know that some behaviors are worthy of shame.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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