Monitor Kids Online With Artificial Intelligence?

Category: Privacy

There’s no question that young people can come to harm online. Child predators, cyberbullies, and other dangers lurk in every form of online activity. Parents, naturally, want to protect their kids, but they can’t monitor every social media, email, Skype chat, etc. So many parents are turning to what can be called AI-powered child surveillance services. Schools also are monitoring students even when the students are off-campus, in hopes of preventing mass shootings, suicides, and other tragedies. Read on for the scoop...

Parental Controls Get AI

Parents want to protect their kids from a variety of dangers that lurk online. Left unsupervised, kids may not know whom to (dis)trust, what dangers lurk in dark corners of the Web, and how to manage social media interactions. Schools have always been a breeding ground for teasing and bullying, but the Internet amplifies those signals and beams them at kids 24/7.

In texting slang, "jk" is shorthand for "just kidding." But it's often used after an ill-considered, mean-spirited or threatening comment. You've probably heard stories of children who have tragically ended their own lives, or taken horrendous measures to get revenge, after being subjected to cyber-bullying. Let's look at how some new tools and technology can help to thwart those unhappy endings, and figure out when "jk" is actually "JK, but not really."

Firms like Bark Technologies, Gaggle, and Securly monitor what kids write, read, and view online, using apps apps installed on individuals’ devices or on school district networks. They look for concerns ranging from use of profanity to expressions of suicidal intentions. Some services, like Securly, block students from accessing blacklisted sites using school resources. All of them send alerts to parents and school administrators when something of concern pops up. If a “concern” is serious and exigent, like a bomb threat, law enforcement may be alerted too.

JK but not really

Bark Technologies, which launched its school service in February, 2017, claims to be monitoring 2.6 million students in 1,100 school districts. It issues 35,000 to 55,000 alerts on a typical day, most of them about profanity. Bark claims to have uncovered 16 school shooting threats in time to thwart them. has been around for 20 years. Since July, 2018, it claims to have prevented 447 suicides among students at the 1,400 school districts it serves. Gaggle also flagged 240 kids who brought weapons to school with intent to harm someone.

Securly Inc claims to serve 10,000 schools and 10 million students. It recently flagged a student who had searched Google for “how to make a bomb” and “how to kill yourself.” A human analyst who reviewed the automated alert contacted the school.

Successes like these are possible because kids often share their anger, despair, or violent intentions on social media, via private messages, and so on. Their peers spread word of contraband rapidly, too. Monitoring services are very good at flagging disturbing communications and alerting the appropriate level of authority.

Early child-monitoring (better known as “parental control”) software, dating back to the mid-1990s, was pretty primitive. It relied on lists of keywords to filter web sites or flag student communications. Today, machine learning and artificial intelligence provide the ability to flag an Instagram photo of a gun in a backpack, or a TikTok video in which verbal threats are made. Modern AI software can even evaluate how serious a threat is, although panels of human analysts still play a role in referrals to schools or law enforcement.

The Privacy/Security Tradeoffs

These monitoring services have helped hundreds of emotionally disturbed students, and may well have prevented dozens of school shootings. Still, their pervasive surveillance raises privacy and free speech concerns, at least among students. Parents and school administrators seem to feel the trade-off is worthwhile.

What happens on social media can move onto a school campus very quickly. Some “trash talking” on Facebook over a weekend often leads to an on-campus fight the following Monday. So schools are naturally in favor of monitoring students’ social media activity whether the kids are at school or not.

Amanda Lenhart, a researcher who has studied how teens use the Internet, says that it’s difficult for adults to correctly interpret kids’ interactions online. “Even if you have people directly looking at posts they won’t know what they’re looking at,” Lenhart told Wired magazine. “That could be exacerbated by an algorithm that can’t possibly understand the context of what it was seeing.”

What do you think? Should parents and schools have unfettered access to students’ social interactions? Is the trade-off of privacy for security worthwhile in this case? Can software ever understand when a teen is joking and serious? Or should we always take a "better safe than sorry" approach? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Monitor Kids Online With Artificial Intelligence?"

Posted by:

Ed Eastman
25 Feb 2019

When kids have issues, they always give off signs, maybe we should try to listen beyond superficially rather than ask everyone else to monitor our offspring.

I believe Parents should actually parent and monitor their lives. Teachers should teach and monitor their schools. Everyone else should mind their own business for everyone's sanity.

That being said, as an IT professional I think it is a good idea to monitor your own resources. I see nothing wrong with a school, or work or a parent monitoring communications or anything on their networks, respectively.

Posted by:

A Pedant
25 Feb 2019

Off topic, perhaps, but I was delighted to read "kids may not know whom to (dis)trust" — it is rare, nowadays, for people to use the word "whom" — and I delight in its correct usage when I happen upon it. Thank-you!

Posted by:

Jay R
25 Feb 2019

Big Brother and the Molding Company. Teach your children well. If the young are not taught at home by family that love is primary, then they are taught by the TV, movies, and friends/associates that anger is fine, and that "I" is the final authority. Thank you for helping me feel good about my old age.

Posted by:

25 Feb 2019

I am an octogenarian and started the first grad in 1943. The was an old saying that, "it takes a village to raise a child". My opinion is that a child, from birth thru college, are always learning. They don't become 'mature' until they learn and put that learning to use. Yes, I speak from my own experiences. I believe that all children should be monitored at home, school, etc... *Refer to "It takes a village to raise a child". To teach someone to swim, you do not toss them in the water and walk off.

Posted by:

25 Feb 2019

Gee. Rather than trusting some unknown tech corp to keep their kids 'safe', maybe parents should actually take the time to TEACH their little darlings the difference between right and wrong and what is permissible and what isn't. Parents need to shoulder the responsibility again and not try to pass it off to schools and tech corps.

Posted by:

26 Feb 2019

What Jim said !!. That said being a retired cop. Agood swat on the behind could help also.

Posted by:

28 Feb 2019

I have mixed emotions.
On one hand, protecting children is generally a good thing.
On the other hand, the more surveillance when they're younger desensitizes surveillance for when they're older.

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