Mental Health and Digital Surveillance
Big Brother Goes to School
Are Your Child’s Most Private Thoughts Used for Psychiatric Screening?
By Lee Spiller, Executive Director
Citizens Commission on Human Rights- Texas
The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent efforts to initiate digital “contact tracing” has likely made you more aware of digital privacy issues. But what about your children? Is your child’s school keeping a behavioral scorecard?
Imagine your daughter keeping a personal journal. How would you feel about your school district’s surveillance bots reading your child’s most private and personal thoughts? Imagine concerning content being shared with school officials. Imagine that same company is using artificial intelligence or “machine learning” algorithms to determine whether your child is at risk of not only harm to self or others, but even whether there are signs of depression or substance abuse. The pitch to parents and school districts is about how this technology is keeping children safe. You can see it here: https://www.gaggle.net/press-room/press-release/gaggle-student-safety-report-49-out-of-every-10000-students-used-online-school-accounts-to-divulge-suicidal-or-self-harm-urges-in-six-month-period/
Imagine finding out your school is monitoring your child’s chats, e-mails, creative writing assignments, social media posts. This is not science fiction. It’s happening right now in many school districts. BuzzFeed News reported extensively about a company that is doing just that, including in schools right here in Texas. You can read about it here: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/carolinehaskins1/gaggle-school-surveillance-technology-education .
Does this technology keep children safe?
According to multiple accounts, evidence of saved lives claimed by surveillance companies is mostly anecdotal. Further, it does not appear that much study has been given to the possibility of long-term harm. What about competing explanations for suspect posts or behavior? Are officials likely to believe opposing explanations or is the child likely to be hauled off to a psychiatric hospital out of an “abundance of caution?”
What if your child is posting or writing about thoughts of self-harm? If they feel spied on or betrayed (and who wouldn’t) are they likely to ever be that candid again?
A journal article in North Carolina Law Review published in 2019 sheds light on this and other issues. You can read that here: https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6749&context=nclr.
A “success story” posted by one of the surveillance companies makes several things clear:
• Surveillance does not stop at the schoolhouse door. In some cases, it is 24/7/365.
• Intervention and “support” includes hauling children off to hospitals.
• In addition to the risk of psychiatric labeling, drugs, and hospitalization, there are juvenile justice implications.
You can read the “success story” here: https://www.gaggle.net/success-stories/dickinson-independent-school-district/.
School mental health screenings are controversial. They also lead to false positives and state intervention. Because of this, parental consent is required before a school can perform a mental health screening of your child.
Can we expect computers and artificial intelligence to do a better job?
At least some research indicates that artificial intelligence algorithms share the same biases as the humans that write them. You can read about it here: https:// www.theverge.com/2019/1/28/18197253/ai-mental-illness-artificial-intelligence-science-neuroimaging-mri
Other researchers reviewed 23 studies of artificial intelligence in mental health care. In essence, they noted, “caution is necessary
in order to avoid over-interpreting preliminary results, and more work is required to bridge the gap between AI in mental health
research and clinical care. “ In other words, we should use caution in relying on this technology.
It’s clear that we may be exposing children to bias and false positives. They deserve to be protected.
If schools perform state or locally funded surveys covering a number of embarrassing subjects including mental health status, or incriminating behavior, they are expected to notify parents and give them the opportunity to opt their child out of such surveys.
But what about a cycle of constant mental health surveillance, including the vetting of writing projects and personal papers?
Shouldn’t parents and students have at least the same protections as they have against intrusive surveys?
Never before have we allowed private companies and government agencies to have such direct access to our children and the inner workings of our families. Where this controversial and potentially biased technology is being used in schools, it is tantamount to continuous mental health surveillance, which may well see unprecedented numbers of children labeled, drugged, and institutionalized.
How can schools adequately warn parents about a system of questionable surveillance technology that is continually searching even the most private posts and documents, not only for inappropriate behavior but for depression, substance abuse and any number of other issues? How much are parents told about the potential for false positives?
In a 1928 wiretapping case, then US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned: “Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions.” (Olmstead v US, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) )
Clearly, what Justice Brandeis warned about in 1928 has come to pass.
Is your school using a surveillance company? If so, read your school’s Student/Parent Handbook and the various consents
you are asked to sign.
• Do you feel adequately informed?
• Have you been told about the possibility of false positives?
• Have you been told that if your child searches the wrong thing on the internet, you may find officials at your house
wanting to do a “welfare check?”
• Have you been told what these programs are looking for?
If the answer is no, then the solution is simple: Read the links in this article and call your elected officials.
If you live in Texas, to find who represents you, go to: https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/
We do not send our children to school to be assessed. We send them to school to be educated.