5 Steps To An Effective Self-Harm Student Cyber Safety Monitoring Program

Working with administrators and student resource professionals, IT teams can make a difference in the lives of students in crisis

Establishing a self-harm student cyber safety monitoring program in district technology is more critical today than ever before.

In 2020, according to recent surveys of young patients seeking treatment in emergency rooms, suicidal thinking and behavior is up by at least 25% from the same periods in 2019.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic is contributing to this increase. Remote learning and stay-at-home orders are changing young peoples’ routines. They’re having a difficult time dealing with the feelings of isolation that those changes produce. Increasingly, your district’s students are turning to drugs, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts to help them cope.

In many cases, students use school technology to signal these kinds of self-destructive thoughts and behavior. Students express themselves in their writing and their communications with friends, peers, and teachers. At times, they even signal problems with the images and videos that they upload to school shared drives.

In today’s learning environment, a student’s online activities are far less visible to the adults in their lives. As a result, school IT teams have a unique role in self-harm student cyber safety monitoring because they’ve become the first line of defense for these troubled kids. IT teams understand the technology and they’re the only ones who have visibility into their students’ online communications and behavior. Here are five steps you can use to create a self-harm student cyber safety monitoring program.

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1. Understand Self-Harm, Suicide, and Student Cyber Safety

School IT teams are in an unfamiliar position when it comes to student safety. In the past, identifying students in crisis was the responsibility of teachers and administrators. But since students are spending more time online, they’ve started to use technology to express themselves. It’s something that teachers and administrators can’t monitor easily.

These four issues are important for IT teams to understand about self-harm monitoring:

  1. Self-harm and suicide are different: Self-harm refers to students hurting themselves without planning on taking their own lives. When a student attempts suicide, they plan on ending their life. The difference is in the intent.
  2. Self-harm is an attempt to cover up larger issues: Students use self-harm to try to cope with critical problems including depression, eating disorders, anxiety, abuse, or low self-esteem. These students need help as quickly as possible to uncover the underlying issues.
  3. Self-harm appears in images and text: Students use school apps to do things such as keep a personal journal in Google Docs or communicate with friends in Docs, Gmail, and Chat. Students also upload images on school apps to share their feelings. Therefore, a self-harm student cyber safety monitoring program must address both text and images.
  4. IT and other school resources need to work together: IT teams aren’t the ones who should address self-harm identified online. The IT team needs to work with teachers, administrators, and counselors who are trained to help a student in crisis.


2. Consider Student Data Privacy

While everyone wants to help students in crisis, IT teams must also address the issue of student cyber safety monitoring and data privacy. School districts often use technology vendors that provide student cyber safety solutions. Students and parents have raised concerns about school cyber safety monitoring programs and tools and the impact they have on a student’s privacy rights. Some of these concerns include:

  • Schools allowing 3rd party vendors to collect student activity data and personally identifiable information: There are concerns that vendors may build profiles on students, and that this information could be used against the student in the future when it comes time to apply for college and scholarships, get a job, or run for public office.
  • Vendors selling student profiles: Parents and students are concerned that these personal profiles could be sold to other companies for marketing and advertising purposes.
  • Living in a “surveillance state”: Students and parents are concerned about the effect on students who may feel like schools and third-party vendors are tracking their every move.
  • Data security: Parents and students wonder about how well schools, and the vendors they are contracting with, are protecting the personal information they collect. Accidental data leaks and malicious attacks expose students to identify theft, harassment, and more.

Each district must decide what approach to take when it comes to online monitoring. Many districts operate under the assumption that students should have no expectation of privacy when they’re using school devices or apps.

3. Evaluate Student Self-Harm Monitoring Technology

Self-harm monitoring technology is advancing rapidly. It started with keyword scanning, which is a tried-and-true approach. However, it does produce a high number of false positives. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is getting a lot of attention for the contributions it can make in fine-tuning self-harm monitoring.

An AI enabled technology can detect student self-harm signals in ways that keyword scanning can’t. It learns from taking large amounts of data and analyzing patterns using fast processing and advanced algorithms.

For example, it can understand the context in a sentence. Therefore, it doesn’t confuse “To Kill a Mockingbird” with “I want to kill myself.” It can also evaluate the sentences that precede and follow a sentence to determine if a keyword is a self-harm signal or not.

[FREE WEBINAR] Student Cyber Safety in Schools. REGISTER HERE >>

4. Develop Internal Processes for Addressing Red Flags

Technology is just the first step in an effective self-harm student cyber safety monitoring program. It’s the people who are involved in the entire program that truly make a difference. Develop a process that describes:

  • When the IT team should escalate self-harm signals
  • The people who should receive the alerts from IT
  • The people who will follow up directly with the student
  • The people who should be involved in helping the student
  • When follow-up and check-ins need to occur

Other school resources such as teachers, administrators, and counselors will take over after the IT team escalates a self-harm signal. Therefore, everyone who needs to be involved in the program should work together to define a smooth-running procedure.

Your IT team doesn’t need to be involved in the entire process, but they need to know what the process is and if/when it changes. The team will then understand and appreciate how their involvement kicks off the entire effort. They can also identify opportunities for adjusting the technology to help improve the program.

5. Establish Regular Assessments

Administrators, student resource professionals, and IT managers should meet on a regular basis to assess the effectiveness of your self-harm student cyber safety monitoring program. It will give the team an opportunity to identify successes and gaps, and to share ideas and recommendations for improvement.

It’s sad that our young people are under such pressure, especially during this time when day to day life just isn’t like it used to be. Luckily, we have the tools to help alleviate some of that pain. When the right school resources come together, they can make a difference in many lives.

Learn more about detecting self-harm and toxic online behavior using AI technology by watching our on-demand webinar. You’ll also hear from someone with first-hand experience using that technology, Michael LeBlanc, Director of Information Technology at St. John’s School.

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