In our most recent print issue, New Republic science editor Judith Shulevitz writes about the range of officious and downright scary technologies available to parents who want to track their kids’ every move—online and on earth. As if to prove her point, along comes news that a school in Glendale in Southern California is paying a technology company called Geo Listening to monitor its students for bullying, suicide threats, and bad behavior.
“Students mocked the effort on Twitter, saying officials at G.U.S.D., the Glendale Unified School District, would not ‘even understand what I tweet most of the time, they should hire a high school slang analyst #shoutout2GUSD,” according to The New York Times. Anyone who pulls up the Geo Listening website will thoroughly agree that teenagers could beat this outfit at its own game. “Disrupt bullying before it’s too late,” admonishes the first slide on the homepage. In the accompany picture, a girl hangs her head as a group of peers—implausibly mixed-gender and clothed in oversize tee-shirts—jeers exaggeratedly. “Tuning you into the student conversation,” promises the next, over an image of teenagers literally whispering behind their hands (as one does).
In all seriousness, the students the Times quotes have a point. The kids at a school know their own slang and conversation, their own hierarchies and politics, better than any master spy who could tune in through a hidden camera. If parents and teachers want good intel, they’re best off relying on operatives who are all the way on the inside. And that’s important when you consider the spectrum of behavior that anxious parents and Geo Listening clients are hoping to catch. The Times lays it out—from a high school sophomore who threatened, “through messages on Myspace, to shoot classmates,” to kids who posted “pictures on Facebook of themselves at a slumber party, posing with rainbow-colored lollipops shaped like phalluses.” Few would disagree that the first case mandates adult—and legal—intervention. In the latter case, and a lot of the gray area that lies in between, it’s harder to say how much heavy surveillance would accomplish, especially if the interpreters on the listening end don’t have much context to tell an average dumb error from a serious red flag.
There’s already good evidence that letting teenagers police themselves can work. An organization called Students for Sensible Drug Policy has long advocated “Good Samaritan Policies” (or “amnesty” policies), which can encourage kids to report their own and their friends’ binge drinking and drug abuse by pledging that they won’t get in trouble for calling 911. Good sex-ed policies can create a similar environment around reporting harassment and assault (though offering anonymity or amnesty in those cases is more ethically jumbled). A study at Cornell in 2006 showed that amnesty policies had increased the number of 911 calls—some life-saving—while the level of drinking and debauchery stayed constant. When it counts, asking kids to play NSA on one another can work.
My colleague Judith Shulevitz closes her essay by warning that “eavesdropping on our offspring … sends the message that nothing and no one is to be trusted: not them, not us, and especially not the rest of the world.” If this mistrustful approach also scares away our most valuable informants, we are doing ourselves yet another disservice.
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