I know that I’m not alone. Like many parents (and perhaps more so as a single working mom), I have few options to keep my boys occupied while I get my work done each day. Camps are canceled. Neighborhood pools are closed. Social interactions with friends are limited. Vacations have been moved to next year. I am doing my best, but not always adhering to NPR reporter and best-selling author Anya Kamenetz who summarized her screen time recommendations best in the slogan: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.”
But while I am sensitive to the amount of time my boys have spent on screens since the Boulder Valley School District ceased in-person learning in March, I am actually more concerned about what they are doing online.
Like a lot of households, my boys and I have a love-hate relationship with devices. iPads, laptops, phones and video game consoles have become tools for learning and exploration, as well as entertainment and games. My boys “search up” (no longer “look up”) their interests: articles about Japanese culture, cooking techniques, Python coding tips and local hiking trails. But, I have observed that they also spend a tremendous amount of time watching countless YouTube videos of others playing video games (I have come to discover this is a “thing”), TikTok videos of questionable and borderline explicit content, and can “search up” most any topic, theme or new “Gen Z” term of art.
As it turns out, K-12 schools and districts preparing for online, remote and hybrid experiences are, in many ways, wrestling with a similar set of issues. They face not just compounding gaps in access and digital literacy — but the challenge of managing and understanding how students are using the hundreds of digital tools that they now have at their fingertips, according to one recent report.
The shift to schooling online has also reinforced the need for increased digital citizenship for students, particularly how they show up online, their online etiquette (or lack thereof), and behavior through on-screen interactions. And schools that are purchasing laptops and other devices must also contend with the challenge of mitigating unhealthy and potentially harmful behaviors online. Sadly, the implications of online bullying make for frequent headlines. And suicide still ranks as the second leading cause of death among teens between the ages of 10-24.
Scary stuff for parents at a time when research suggests that stress and trauma are on the rise, and a Washington University study found that 75 percent of parents with children who have suicidal thoughts are unaware that their children are experiencing such thoughts.
The good news is that emerging technologies (AI and machine learning) actually allow schools to follow digital breadcrumbs left by students online, to spot warning signs that might be missed despite educators’ careful observations in the classroom or hallway. These “crumbs” create opportunities to intervene early, and address behaviors that may be self-harmful or impact large numbers of students. They can even alert school administrators or parents to warning signs that may be less evident in the digital world but are nevertheless early indicators of a student in crisis.
According to Brian Thomas, CEO of Lightspeed Systems, which develops web filtering and online student safety technology used by thousands of U.S. districts, schools can now identify not just specific online behaviors like viewing of hate content or a search history that may reveal signs of depression or suicidal ideation. They can also spot and analyze trends like a spike in online activity late at night, or hours spent watching a string of YouTube videos, which have been known to send users down an algorithmic path toward extremism.
“Even though students were learning from home this spring, schools felt an obligation to keep them safe. With students’ increased online access (and sometimes decreased oversight), we saw a spike in attempts to access adult content or try to get around filtering protection. But there was also a rise in behavior that suggested mental health concerns and risk of self-harm,” he told me. “It’s not new to COVID-19 and distance learning, but it’s on the rise and becoming more widespread. Just recently in a school district in Alabama, our technology discovered a nine-year-old student was searching for ways to commit suicide.”
With good reason, the benefits of monitoring behavior online can also raise privacy concerns. Although several state laws and the Children’s Internet Privacy Act (CIPA) now require that schools utilize web filtering, some parents and privacy experts worry about district overreach or inadvertent exposure of a student’s personal information or interests to educators – or even parents. Educators and parents will, no doubt, be challenged to balance potential risks, with benefits, as technology use grows and tools become even more sophisticated. And Common Sense Media notes that these tools work best when used openly, “not as a stealth spying method.”
Of course, discussions and debates about not just screen time, but online safety, security and privacy are likely to accelerate in the months to come. The impacts of school closures, stay-at-home orders and unmonitored device usage will likely be studied for years to come. And while I do not imagine that our family will see a significant decline in screen time this summer, I do know that as a parent, I am now more aware of how my boys are using devices and engaging while online — and how to best support them in those interactions. I am heartened to know that schools are taking up the challenge of making good on the promise of digital learning, while monitoring for troubling trends.