Intersections: Finding ways to monitor that sinking feeling

Sometimes when friends and I are feeling nostalgic, we'll recount our earlier days together, particularly when we were first introduced to the Internet, that wonderful tool that changed everyone's lives forever.

"Remember when you had to disconnect your phone to sign on?" we'll say between belly laughs. "And that awful, piercing connection signal that came just before the famous 'You've Got Mail!' proclamation by AOL?"

As a preteen, there were few things more exciting than being able to chat with your friends with user names that reflected the now cringe-worthy pop culture of the time (our poison of choice was "Titanic" and all the characters that came along with it).

Back then, you signed on and then you signed off. The Internet was a guilty pleasure, an activity you engaged in briefly, hoping that your signal wouldn't be cut off by a call your parents were expecting. It was a part of life. These days, the Internet — and how you choose to express yourself on it — is not a fragment of your existence, is it your entire existence.

The news of Glendale Unified school district's plan to monitor students' social media posts made national headlines — from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the news website Truthdig and dozens of blog posts and message boards discussing the hiring of Hermosa Beach-based Geo Listening to provide school officials with daily reports of student social media activity.

Perhaps the extreme lengths Glendale has taken seem pioneering, but social media monitoring in schools isn't particularly new.

Up north, the Lodi Unified School District had a social media contract that required students involved in extracurricular activities to inform officials if they saw their peers bullying or making inappropriate comments on social media sites.

Last month, the district suspended the rule and is now finding an alternate solution after a letter sent from an attorney contended that it violated state and federal law.

At Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts, a "new media specialist" monitors mentions of the school online, watching for comments "that can affect its reputation to students who write they intend to harm themselves or others at the school," reports the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise.

Geo Listening's third-party involvement, however, complete with daily reports, is a different kind of territory, one where it's not the students or school staff reporting information, but an independent third party.

This has brought up concerns by some online commenters about the possible violation of the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which allows the release of information only to specific parties but also requires that schools must allow parents and eligible students time to request that the school not disclose information about them to others.

But the company takes all privacy concerns seriously and has retained privacy counsel with expertise in social networks, children's privacy and privacy requirements in education space, including those outlined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and state education codes, according to a press release by the company on Sept. 3.

On a frequently-asked-questions portion of its website, Geo Listening addresses concerns about privacy. "The students we can help are already asking for you. All of the individual posts we monitor on social media networks are already made public by students themselves. Therefore, no privacy is violated."

That's a fair point. If you've made yourself public online, you have to resign yourself to the realization that anyone, stranger or not, can see what you've written. This could include statements and thoughts which at times might have small or large consequences — even if you didn't mean them, even if, in typical teenager fashion, you were just lashing out, being melodramatic or feeling scorned.

The point in all of this is to prevent destructive behavior, to catch a downward spiral before it so rapidly progresses that it's too late, to not leave the people in charge of taking care of others scratching their heads after the fact, wondering if they could have done anything to prevent it all.

This is commendable. But it's also signaling another dilemma — we don't know our preteens, adolescents or teenagers as well as we should. We can't read them as well as we'd like. We don't have any inkling about the secret lives they might lead, the hidden feelings they might have.

As soon as they enter that awkward stage in their lives when they dream about being on a ship named Titanic that's doomed for disaster, we abandon them and their emotions. So perhaps some of the effort to monitor their online activities during a time in their lives when they don't even know themselves might be best spent doing something simpler, something a bit more honest and real: talking to them.


LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World