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Geo Listening – Big Brother or Big Relief?

By Stacey Ross

My girl recently was in one of her middle school classes when one of the kids’ phones rang. The teacher asked all kids with phones to remove them from their backpacks and be sure the ringers were turned off. Thirty or so out of the forty did so, which, of course, prompted my daughter to note, once again, that she was one of the handful of non-phone-owning kids among her 11-year old peers. (Poor baby- lol). I tell her that as her parent, I don’t take that privilege lightly, and when the time comes for her to have a phone, she will know.

When adults routinely provide kids with an array of online platforms, they assume the responsibility – or burden – of determining how kids' online activities should be best monitored. Parents are essentially letting their children go out to roam in the world-wide “virtual playground,” but are often not savvy or online “literate” enough to navigate that playground themselves, let alone detect if their kids are in harm’s way or up to no good.

Internet safety training, software, and applications are greatly beneficial as “digital parenting” tools, but in many cases kids with skills find ways to bypass their folks’ efforts, despite adults' proactive efforts to filter, or shelter their children. The bottom line is that at the touch of the button, kids are exposed and vulnerable, and adults can't afford to be too trusting and relaxed, given the potential threats that exist on the Web.

Geo Listening tracks social accounts

The Glendale, California, school district has made a move to address this issue head-on by contracting Geo Listening for $40,500 annually to monitor its 14,000 students online. Geo Listening regularly combs the social media profiles of students who are 13-years-old and over, and provides the schools with daily reports on potential problems – specifically anything that violates the school code of conduct or could disrupt the educational process.

Geo Listening uses keyword searches to track public messages shared in social media, looking for comments that might reflect topics such as bullying, cyber-bullying, despair, hate, harm, crime, vandalism, substance abuse, and truancy. Its employees monitor public platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Picasa, Vine, Flickr, Ask.fm, YouTube, Google+ and many other public platforms.

I spoke for a good hour with Geo Listening CEO Chris Frydrych, who quickly turned the tables around by asking me, “Whose responsibility is it to make sure that children follow house rules and school rules? Is it not our job as the adults to take responsibility for our own climate?” Since kids' well-being is at stake, the idea is that it is proactive to try to resolve potential harm early on versus when it is too late.

Frydrych shared with me that students and staff are fully aware and even appreciative that their schools are now monitored and alerted about potentially detrimental activities going on in their students’ lives, such as drug use, violent activities or cutting class. He won't disclose how his company gathers the students' messages, or precisely how his company deciphers how they match accounts with individual students in the district, but he did share that his company searches key words and phrases that might be warning signs of trouble. A kid who mentions "cutting" might not just be cutting newspaper clippings, for example. Technology detects potential issues, but real people intervene to look at the context in which certain words are used.

He told me that his employees monitor the accounts for no longer than 4-hour shifts, as the messages that they are exposed to can be deep, dark and troubling (although not always red flags that qualify as reportable). He wants to be sure that they get ample time away from work to clear their heads!


The Glendale policy is attracting debate and scrutiny, as many claim it crosses a line by “spying” on children in their social media platforms. I asked several online enthusiasts and educators for their take and received mixed reactions. Many look at the services in distrust, and consider the potential abuses threatening. Some of the specific concerns shared included the following:

  • Kids might take things "underground" (for example, emailing, texting, phone calling are areas that are already off-grounds).
  • Things could evolve into a school version of the NSA, smelling very “Big Brother-esque.”
  • Certain cases might be overlooked, posing a liability issue, or misinterpreted, causing an unwarranted intrusion and intervention.
  • When children learn that they can easily privatize their accounts they will have more freedom to do as they please.
  • Some do not like the idea that their kids’ creative expression and freedom of speech, such as satire, sarcasm, humor, etc., could be used against them.
  • Questions arise about the fine line between “tracking” and “monitoring” and also raise concerns that adults' streams in the given demographic are being monitored as well.

CEO's response

Frydrych emphasized that the information gathered is already public and that his company is only looking to identify areas of heightened concern that demonstrate violations of the schools’ codes of conduct. He also shared that a mobile app will be made available to empower adults as well as children to anonymously report to school officials anything they feel poses a concern.

This way, if they have seen anything that threatens the welfare of anyone, regardless of where that information came from (private or public means of communicating), they would have the means to report their concerns and be heard, with the comfort of knowing that they do not need to submit anything on a formal basis.

What next?

Kids hanging out and essentially growing up in the social media jungle poses great concerns, as it is difficult to be involved and aware of the very viral content that many of our children are putting out there and are exposed to. They are vulnerable, naive, and impressionable.

The big question is, (short of imposing universal filters) how should we go about monitoring the virtual world of these pervasively used and explosively popular platforms where the thoughts, threats, worries and plans of our future generations constantly reside? Does this online "playground" warrant our assigning a virtual "yard supervisor" or should we put our efforts elsewhere when it comes to preventing harm to our children?

Do you think we should scour students’ public social media streams to detect red alerts before they bring potential harm, or does this method seem too invasive? What say you?

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.

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