Student Mental Wellbeing And Cyber Safety

September 30, 2021

Technology can help spot cyber safety issues that are affecting student mental wellbeing

District leaders are becoming more concerned about student mental wellbeing and cyber safety. Much of this concern is being driven by the pandemic. When asked about their mental health, about 60% of high school students report that their mental health has worsened since COVID-19 hit.

While we can’t eliminate the pandemic, we can take a hard look at some of the contributing factors that will negatively impact the mental wellbeing of students, many of whom are already struggling more than usual. The way that students use the internet has proven to be one of those contributors.

Students of all ages are spending more time online, both for school and in their personal lives. Research shows that there are reasons to be concerned about the amount of time that students spend on the internet. These findings include:

  • Excessive use of digital technologies and social media have been associated with mental illness.
  • Social media use is associated with body image concerns and eating disorders.
  • A significant link was found between playing video games at night and sleep deprivation.

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The term mental wellbeing relates to a person’s thoughts and feelings, and how they are able to cope with the ups and downs of their life. According to CABA:

”Importantly, good mental wellbeing is not the absence of negative thoughts and feelings. We all face difficult and challenging situations that cause us to feel angry, sad, overwhelmed, and everything in-between. Instead, it’s about being able to understand and manage those feelings…”

Student mental wellbeing and cyber safety isn’t only a problem for older students. Half of mental illness starts by age 14. Anxiety and personality disorders can be spotted around age 11. Therefore, K-12 cyber safety precautions should be taken in schools from an early age.

Cyber safety in schools covers several intertwined issues, ranging from cyberbullying to school violence. IT teams can use technology to spot these cyber safety issues in school technology.

Cyberbullying and Student Mental Wellbeing

In-person bullying has been a problem in schools as long as schools have been in operation. However, students have found new ways to bully others using technology. IT teams are fighting against students using school technology to bully others. For example:

  • Students have found that they can use Google Docs as chat rooms and use them to spread harmful comments about other students.
  • Students have been caught uploading explicit images to Google Drive.

In addition, hackers are acting as cyberbullies. One example of this is the use of sextortion. The FBI is working to educate students, parents, and caregivers and raise awareness of sextortion crimes. In many known cases, hackers are contacting students, becoming friends, and then luring them into sharing explicit photos. They then use those images to bully and blackmail the student, asking for payment or illicit acts. The hacker may also make physical threats if the student doesn’t cooperate.

School cybersecurity and cyberbullying are also related. There have been documented cases of hackers stealing student and parent information from school systems. Then, they use that contact information to harass and bully students and parents into making payments or pressuring the school into doing so.

We can only imagine the effect that experiences like these can have on a young person’s mental wellbeing.

Self-Harm, Suicide, and Student Mental Wellbeing

Self-harm and suicide are often seen as the same issue when it comes to student safety. However, self-harm is an indication that a student is facing broader issues and trying to deal with them. Suicide is very specific because the student is considering taking their own life.

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Students who want to harm themselves will cut themselves, hit their heads against a door, punch themselves, or find other ways to cause themselves harm. Since these students are already familiar with harming themselves, they are more likely not to be afraid of the thought of killing themselves and may move on to considering suicide.

Another type of self-harm is emerging in the research, which is digital self-harm. Digital self-harm consists of students who use online technology to bully themselves.

One thing that self-harm and suicide do have in common is that they are both indicators that a student’s mental wellbeing is suffering to the extent that they are now in a mental health crisis.

How Technology Can Help

Today, IT teams can play a role in helping schools manage student mental wellbeing and cyber safety. Technology is available to assist in this effort by automating the process of spotting students in crisis in a variety of ways.

There is a debate among district leaders around whether or not to allow students to use email and chat on school accounts. On one hand, schools don’t think students should be using school-provided tech for personal use, and they don’t want to be held liable for problems that will inevitably arise.

On the other hand, some districts think it’s a good idea to provide a safe space for students to interact and collaborate where they are being monitored for things like toxic behavior, explicit and inappropriate content, bullying, etc. The argument for this route is that it allows students to get used to the collaborative spaces that they’ll be using in the workplace. And being able to detect bad behavior creates an opportunity for re-educating students about digital (and physical) citizenship.

Cyberbullying Detection

Cyberbullying detection is becoming much easier with the support of technology. ManagedMethods offers API-based cyberbullying monitoring for Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. The platform will notify admins when an instance of cyberbullying appears on school systems, which can be in text or image files, emails, and chat apps.

When an incident occurs, an administrator can provide a report to relevant school officials detailing who created the content, others who received it, and those who contributed to it.

Self-Harm and Suicide Detection

Your school suicide prevention program can benefit significantly from incorporating AI-enabled self-harm monitoring technology that is able to detect red flags in text and images that exist in your district’s cloud apps. Self-harm monitoring should be able to look for the top three behaviors that you can spot online that indicate self-harm behavior.

  1. Maintaining a journal in an online document where the student writes about harming themselves.
  2. Uploading images of cuts, burns, bruises, etc.
  3. Talking to friends about harming themselves using chat apps, email, or shared documents.

According to research, the top five student suicide digital signals that technology can be used to monitor school-provided technology for are:

  1. Indications of bullying/cyberbullying
  2. Self-harm signals, since 65% of students who self-harm will become suicidal
  3. Indications of depression and anxiety
  4. Excessive online browsing
  5. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) surveys

Monitoring for indications of self-harm and suicidal red flags can be a bit tricky. Keyword scanning is the earliest technology that was used for this type of monitoring, but it’s not as effective as cyber safety artificial intelligence, which is better at “understanding” context and significantly reduces false positives that commonly make finding real crisis incidents difficult.

For example, AI monitoring can tell the difference between text that says, “I feel like killing myself” and “The comic was killing me.” It can differentiate between “I want to die” vs “I don’t want to die.”

School Violence Detection

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines five distinct types of school violence. Finding signals of potential school violence is where all the other types of monitoring come together. This is because many of the other factors discussed above are considered school violence early warning signs. For example, cyberbullying and school violence are considered by researchers and experts to be very closely related.

Technology can monitor for students who are being bullied, are obsessed with violence, and/or are suicidal.

Creating a safe learning space for students to succeed is the ultimate goal of all schools, and this goal needs to extend beyond the classroom to online learning. Toxic online behavior breeds a variety of poor well-being for students both online and offline.

To be clear, technology and cloud monitoring are by no means a replacement for personal relationships and contact.

Student mental wellbeing and cyber safety are related, but ultimately students need the care of parents/guardians, peers, teachers, coaches, and/or counselors to feel a sense of security, belonging, and positive wellness. Technology should be seen as a support tool that can provide some visibility into what is going on in digital spaces that adults may not be aware of.

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