Integrating technology into your district’s student suicide prevention program can make a huge difference in a child’s life
Students are spending more time online, and it’s a trend that will undoubtedly continue even in a post-pandemic world. Likewise, they are also doing more learning online, both in and outside of the classroom. For example, completing homework often requires online research and collaboration with other students in a cloud app like Google Docs or Word.
For this reason, K-12 cyber safety programs are critical for keeping students safe online. For example, administrators should be planning for ways to monitor school-provided technology for student suicide digital signals as part of their broader student suicide prevention program.
What is a digital signal? It’s anything that someone posts on a digital platform that can be identified and categorized. For example, if a student sends an email to another student describing the fact that they are depressed and want to kill themselves, an automated system can identify the intent of the email and categorize it as a student suicide digital signal.
Digital signals can exist in text, video, and/or image files. And, it’s important for district admins to understand that these signals aren’t only being shared via instant messaging or social media.
Unfortunately, students aren’t only using school-provided technology in the ways they’re supposed to. School admins we work with are finding a variety of inappropriate and harmful digital signals in district Google and Microsoft domains.
In these cases, the digital signals reveal toxic online behavior where they’re planning to or are inflicting harm on themselves and/or others. Student digital signals can point to discussions of self-harm, thoughts of suicide, cyberbullying, discrimination, substance abuse, threats of violence, sexual exploitation and/or inappropriateness, and more. School IT teams are finding student safety risk signals in school-provided emails, shared drives, files, and chat apps.
Research shows that adolescents are likely to talk about suicidal thoughts, but they also use digital media such as social networking sites, blog posts, instant messages, text messages, and emails. Further, they found an increase in the number of suicide digital signals over the four years of their study. They concluded that using digital outlets to convey distress may become even more common.
To be clear, technology isn’t a silver-bullet for preventing student suicides. And K-12 IT admins are not mental health counselors. The first people to know about a student’s suicidal issues are usually going to be their peers, family members, teachers, and/or other trusted individuals in their lives. It is important for schools to train faculty, parents, and students on how to identify potential suicide risk signals and respond appropriately as part of their suicide prevention program.
However, integrating technology into your district’s student suicide prevention program makes a huge difference for students in crisis and for your community as a whole.
5 Student Suicide Digital Signals that School Technology Can Monitor
Your IT team is in a unique position to monitor for potential student suicide digital signals. You can then establish a process for reporting risk signals to building professionals who are equipped for counseling students in crisis. Here are five digital signals that schools we work with find that could prevent a student suicide.
1. Cyberbullying Signals
Cyberbullying is a big problem around the globe. 60% of parents who have children in the 14 to 18-year-old age range report that their children are being bullied, and 82.2% of that cyberbullying is happening at school.
School leaders are well aware of the need for cyber safety in schools, but don’t always think beyond their content filter and blocking students from harmful websites. New technology that can handle cyberbullying monitoring is available, and schools need to monitor internal locations, like Google Docs, Slides, chat apps, emails, etc, for harmful content and behavior.
When school leaders talk about cyberbullying, they relate stories of how students use school systems to harass one another. Stories we’ve heard from their own cyberbullying detection experiences include:
Students using Google Slides to message each other. They used white lettering to make the files look like blank pages.
Most risk alerts come from Gmail conversations between students—meaning they’re using school-provided email to have personal discussions
Students are deleting text, renaming files, and moving files around shared drives to create different versions of a file and make detection difficult without an advanced alerting system
It’s important to note that bullying doesn’t directly correlate to suicide. But, research shows that children and young adults under the age of 25 who are being cyberbullied are twice as likely to harm themselves and exhibit suicidal behavior. Interestingly, the people who cyberbully others are also at higher risk.
Therefore, detecting and addressing bullying behavior early on is an effective way to reduce potential suicidal outcomes in the future. Not to mention the many other benefits it will have for all involved students’ wellbeing.
For example, cyberbullying and school violence have also been found to be closely related. So much so that cyberbullying is one of the top school violence early warning signs.
2. Self-Harm Signals
Student self-harm and suicide are two different things, but they are related.
Self-harm refers to students who hurt themselves in a number of ways, including cutting and/or burning themselves, misusing alcohol and drugs, or hitting themselves against walls or with weapons. Digital self-harm is another form of self-harm that is relatively new and not well understood by child psychologists. The intent of self-harm is to release difficult feelings, not to end a life.
However, research shows that about 65% of students who self-injure will also become suicidal at some point. It’s important to recognize that when a student self-harms, it makes it easier for them to think about suicide. They have “practiced” harming themselves, which reduces the inhibition they would typically feel about taking their own life.
3. Depression and Anxiety Signals
According to the CDC, anxiety and depression in children is a big problem. In children aged 3-17 years old, 4.4 million have diagnosed anxiety and 1.9 million have diagnosed depression.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) states that most children and adolescents who attempt suicide have a mental health issue, usually depression. Therefore, spotting depression and anxiety signals is critically important to preventing suicide.
Students with anxiety or depression may send out the following types of signals:
A preoccupation with death and dying
Fear of being away from their parents
Worrying about the future and bad things happening
Panic reactions such as heart pounding, trouble breathing, feeling dizzy
Feeling extremely sad or hopeless
4. Excessive Online Browsing
Many parents think their children are guilty of excessive online browsing, but there comes a point where it can be a real problem. There is an illness called Internet Addiction Disorder, and children are as prone to it as adults. Many students do a lot of online browsing without becoming addicts, but excessive online browsing can signal the beginning of a real problem.
For a student who has anxiety or depression, they may spend an unreasonable amount of time browsing to find bad things happening in the world. Or, they may focus on finding violent or destructive content online. That type of signal could certainly mean the student is moving toward more destructive behavior.
5. Survey Responses
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a hot topic this year, as many students are returning to classrooms after an extended period of social distancing. There are indications that SEL can positively impact school violence, bullying, depression, anxiety, and other student safety concerns.
We recently hosted a podcast discussing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in K-12 schools with Eileen Belastock, the Director of Technology and Information at Nauset Public Schools. During our discussion, Eileen shared how schools can incorporate something as simple as using a Google Form to do a daily check-in on how students are feeling.
If your school does the same, or are looking to incorporate it into your SEL program, the form can be set up to collect responses in a Google Sheet. That way, admins can monitor responses to spot cries for help and potential suicide risk signals. This could be done manually and/or by using cyber safety artificial intelligence technology to flag potential risks.
For IT Admins: Understanding Student Self-Harm and Suicide Signals
As mentioned previously, IT admins are not trained counselors. You can’t be expected to directly help a student in crisis. However, IT teams do effectively partner with student resources in the schools to help provide a window into what is going on in digital platforms. As a member of the IT team, here are a few things you should know about student self-harm and suicide signals.
Student self-harm and suicide are different but related. As mentioned earlier, while these are two different problems, self-harming behavior is linked to an increased risk of future suicidal ideation, and sometimes action. That is why self-harm detection in school-provided technology is critical.
Monitoring must cover images and text. While students will write about harming themselves or taking their own lives, they may also post images that illustrate one activity or the other. The images are just as much a signal as the text.
IT should coordinate with school resources. You’re in a unique position to spot problems in a space that others are mostly blind to. It’s critical that you partner with those people who are trained to counsel students to develop a process defining how you’ll work together. You need to know who to alert when a problem is spotted, and that person needs to know how to manage the issue before you have an irreversible situation on your hands.
Student suicide digital signals are typically a call for help. Schools need to develop a way to detect those cries for help online so they can intervene in situations, and help the student improve their mental health. With the right people, training, tools, and processes, you can help students live long enough to find their way in the world.