On Thursday, principals and privacy advocates responded to reports about Australian schools gearing up to trial student monitoring software that some called ‘Big Brother’ technology.
The UK Government sees the monitoring students’ online activity is seen as an important part of safeguarding young people and promoting student welfare in the context of early intervention.
In England and Wales, 50% of all mental health conditions are established by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24.
While the purpose of the UK-based eSafe Global monitoring system is to identify online risks such as bullying, teen depression and even extremism, there are concerns in Australia that it may have ramifications for students’ online privacy.
However, eSafe’s managing director, Mark Donkersley, said the value of identifying any actual or potential harm early before it turns into something more serious will be just as well understood acceptable to Australian parents as it is to those in the UK.
“If you believe that there is a duty of care to prevent or mitigate harms, the ‘self-insurance’ option [give the students the tools and education and let them get on with it] is from experience in the UK over the past 5 years an inadequate prescription,” Donkersley told The Educator.
“The issues and conditions affecting young people are not always visible to school staff, parents and their student peers.”
Donkersley pointed out that these issues may be “obscured or subtle”.
“You need a fall back for the inevitable car crashes that will happen no matter how well trained or road-savvy the driver is,” Donkersley said.
“eSafe is a service which uses behaviour specialists to identify the early warning markers of safeguarding risk which are proven to be evident in the digital environments which schools and colleges make available to student users.”
Donkersley said the program is “neither a covert nor a technology solution” and it is taken up with the full knowledge of students, parents and school management teams.
“Schools in NSW are looking to conduct controlled trials of the eSafe Service and just as with the process associated with the introduction of a new drug; the schools, the students and the parents will be involved in properly evaluating the outcome based on the statistical evidence of the safeguarding issues identified,” he said.
“If there is to be a realistic and effective focus on the welfare and well-being of the next generation of Australians it would be a dereliction of that duty of care not to undertake this sort of monitoring experiment in the first place, or allow it to be derailed by ill-informed accusations of ‘big brother’ and mistrust.”
eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, said that while such monitoring technology can play a helpful role in promoting students’ online safety and well-being, they should be viewed as “one tool within a multi-faceted approach to online safety.”
“It’s important that care is taken to ensure there is not an over-reliance on technological tools, but that schools, parents and communities have the best possible programs and practices in place to encourage education and prevention strategies addressing potential online harms,” Grant told The Educator.
“It is crucial that young people learn essential life skills such as resilience, respect, responsibility and critical reasoning in order to thrive both online and offline.”
Grant added that it is incumbent upon schools to ensure due diligence is undertaken as to the relevant privacy and other legal considerations when implementing technological tools that involve monitoring students.