(WSPA) – When it comes to tech in schools, most districts have a one-to-one ratio, a device for every student.
In this 7NEWS Consumer Exclusive, we looked into how Upstate schools monitor students online, what they’re finding and how those results show an urgent need for parents to consider adding protections at home.
What parents can do at home
Christi Wagner, a Greenville mother of two, is one of those former PTA presidents known for being a savvy mom, though she’s too humble to admit it.
“I cannot keep up with what’s going on,” she told us with a chuckle.
Truth is, Wagner doesn’t need to be a tech expert, though her husband is one, since they have been smart enough to install a monitoring program for their teens’ devices.
After researching the options, Wagner said they chose a program called Bark.
It sends alerts for flagged content like bad language, sex, violence and mental health struggles.
“There have been some things that have come up that cause us to have conversations about, hey, you shouldn’t say something like that, or is this person being a good friend or some things like that,” Wagner said.
However, sometimes Bark can also identify when a friend of your child needs help.
Wagner explained how that happened to her when one of her children got a concerning text from a peer about self-harm. Wagner then learned that was not uncommon.
“I was talking to a friend the other day about Bark, and she says she has a friend who it just alerted their family that their child was suicidal, so that is a prime reason to try to get that,” Wagner explained.
What schools are finding, it’s alarming
Those types of alerts are also not uncommon on school devices according to Kyle Newton, the Assistant Superintendent of District 5 in Anderson.
He said what districts are learning through monitoring programs should be a wake-up call to parents.
“One thing that we’ve seen, not only in Anderson District 5 but really across the state is how some of this is trickling down to younger ages,” Newton said. “Things that you maybe only used to see maybe in a middle school now is trickling down to 4th and 5th grade, things like you know vaping, sharing elicit images, things like that that you typically don’t ever associate with an elementary school.”
Anderson District 5 along with Greenville County Schools and 23 districts in South Carolina use the monitoring program Gaggle which screens for catchphrases, keywords and images that are inappropriate or concerning.
The numbers are alarming.
Gaggle said it saw a 40% increase in serious incident rates last year over the prior school year.
Breaking it down, from the 2020-21 school year to 2021-22, the monitoring program flagged 51% more references to suicide and self-harm and saw a 152% spike in violent language towards others, plus a 224% increase in references to drugs and alcohol.
How some students try to circumvent protections
Up I-85, Director of Technology Donnie Elder said Spartanburg District 3 uses several programs including CISCO Umbrella and CISCO Amp to flag and remove content.
Like many districts, it also has to deal with students trying to get around the systems, which block concerning content, through Virtual Private Networks or VPNs.
“The word travels fast so as soon as someone finds a VPN that helps them circumvents our fire wall possibly, then they let their buddies know and so we have to act quickly to lock that thing down, so they are not able to get around our protections,” according to Elder.
Other online safety steps at home
That’s why parents, like Wagner are wise to use tech to fight the “abuse of tech,” even with kids they trust.
While school devices already have the added protections, Wagner not only makes sure the home devices have safeguards but also follows social media groups like “Officer Gomez” and “Parenting in a Tech World” to stay up to date on the latest trends and slang teens may be using to evade a parent’s eye.
In addition to Bark, Wagner also uses privacy settings in Google Chrome and YouTube to restrict websites and concerning content, including ads.
“I don’t want to know everything a teenage boy says to his friends. But you know, if we can just have a snippet of the things we need to be aware of, I think that’s more helpful,” Wagner said.