Kids & Screens: Should I Raise Privacy Concerns with the School?
While TikTok is in free fall towards antagonism in many countries, I can't help but recall it was not that long ago I was encouraged by my employer to create my own TikTok profile as a teacher. Needless to say, I argued this and never created an account, but the short time span of about 6 months does illustrate how quickly attitudes about technology and young people can change.
I feel fortunate to be a member of the generation that got to experience the pre and post-digital world. Now that we are fully settled in the digital world, there clearly was honey moon period during the early and mid 2000s, when we witnessed a rapid increase in adoption of digital platforms and tools, and everything felt exciting and new. The Big Five and other companies began sharing impressive applications like Gmail, Dropbox and Evernote, and social platforms like Facebook, all seemingly for free. As a teacher, I actively promoted the use of these tools among colleagues and students. I only had one student challenge me on this. It never occurred to me at the time to consider the business model of these companies, nor that my one critical student might be onto something. I just embraced everything, equating new with good. I was certainly not alone in this tech fandom.
A lot has changed since then. Now, in 2023, we are well past the honey moon phase, as the reports on TikTok and parental control of children's social media accounts in the news about the US and other countries show.1 2
However, I sometimes feel that in education, the 'new equals good' approach has, unfortunately, stuck. I see this as a teacher and as a parent. Schools sometimes make truly horrendous decisions about devices, digital tools and student privacy. Consider, for example, the overreach of the exam surveillance tools that were starting to be implemented during the pandemic. Also, there are many instances, like annotation, where pen and paper are the most effective tools to use. The question for us parents then becomes: should I voice my opinion on my child's school's use of digitally invasive tools, or is it better wait and see? The answer is: it depends.
Below, I will outline specific cases I encountered as a parent; I will describe and explain my response, and reflect on whether that was the right approach, looking back.
1. Mobile phones in school
I work in a school where mobile phones are banned during the school day. This is essentially a good thing. There was a time when more naive attitudes prevailed, and teachers were encouraged to integrate smartphone use in their lessons. This led to endless interactive fact quiz games in the classroom, which was fun but perhaps not always educational. What I saw before and after the ban of smartphones has convinced me a ban during the school day is the way to go, despite the awkwardness of policing this. When smartphones were still allowed, students on the whole would not go outside or talk to each other during their breaks. Instead, they would pull out their phones en masse and zombie out for the duration of free time, remaining in their seats.
While my oldest did bring a smartphone to school in the early days, I did not speak up about it as a parent, and don't know how much time was spent on the device instead of getting fresh air or socialising face-to-face. My younger children were too young for phones at the time. In the meantime, while they've grown older, I've had the chance to reflect and make my own decisions.
While smartphones are allowed in school, my children carry a 'dumb phone' for emergencies. They do not seem too upset about this, joke about playing the game Snake for entertainment, and sometimes make serious observational comments about the high level of smartphone addiction of their peers. My youngest has even commented that some classmates are jealous of the retro cool Nokia.
2. Social media required for school tasks
I am disappointed when my children's teachers create assignments that require an Instagram account to complete. Not only does this go against the legal age limitations, I find the assumption that all students and their families have social media accounts short-sighted.
It hasn't happened that often. I was going to speak up on this but the child who was given the task to upload photo's of the city to an Instagram account found their own solution, which was to use a friend's account.
I let this one go. Being on both sides of the fence, I know as a teacher that parents who complain about everything end up shooting themselves in the foot. There is a risk of ostracising yourself, or developing a reputation of being a parent who never sees the positives. You don't want to become that parent, harsh as that may sound.
So, with this particular issue, I have taken the 'wait and see' approach. I do think that if it came to a head and there was no way around my child signing up for a social media account against my wishes, I would have to write to the school.
3. Commercial parent portals
This is another disappointment. The teacher of my youngest has decided to use a commercial smartphone app for teacher-parent communication. If I don't install the app, which is clearly not privacy preserving and even goes as far as encouraging me to purchase 'compliment credits' for real money (a tactic which the video game industry has learned to avoid if reputation matters), then I may miss out on important messages.
Clearly, this is an erroneous approach. It assumes every parent has a smartphone and is willing to download random commercial apps. It is entirely inappropriate for a teacher to use such a platform for school business.
But here again, I found a workaround. I learned about creating different user profiles on my deGoogled phone, and I have installed the app, and a few other school platform apps to this unique profile. When I don't need these apps, I can freeze the whole profile. (I will describe how to install and use this feature in CalyxOS in a future post!)
I didn't want to tell on the teacher. She is otherwise an excellent teacher, but clearly hasn't thought this one issue through carefully. It's only for one year, as well. Previous teachers have not asked me to install the app, and I'm hoping to delete it in August.
4. School using online vendor for child's art and fundraising
This one I protested vehemently. As a fundraiser, the school had partnered with an online vendor. The students were asked to create a piece of visual art around a theme, and each child's work was then uploaded the shop, where it could be sold printed on mugs, lunch boxes and other items. Some of the proceeds would go to the school for things like better gym equipment - a good cause. Parents were sent a link where—get this—you could not access the store until you'd given the company the email addresses of at least five other potential customers! This is not only devious and ruthlessly commercial, but when I studied the fine print, I discovered that the school was making only a small percentage on each item sold for the charitable cause. I was livid about this and protested to the Head of the school, and I reported the company for unethical sales practices.
As far as I know, nothing happened. The school continues to work with the vendor, and I've never heard back from the customer rights organisation. Looking back, I do feel protesting was the right thing to do, and I hope other parents did too and that parents will continue to protest. For now, all I can do is warn my child well in advance that we will not be participating in the scheme this year, something that is not easy for a young person to understand. I hate the company all the more for putting me in such a position, and am disappointed in the school's decision to continue collaborating with them.
5. School photographs on social media
Fortunately, most schools nowadays seem to have a default questionnaire for parents at the beginning of the year about the use of your child's photographs on school social media. We generally tick the 'no' box, though I have to be honest that I have not always been consistent with this. The reason is that it is practically awkward for a school to follow through on this, and sometimes for the student as well.
6. Chromebooks and Google suite for students
I have protested the introduction of Chromebooks in my child's school. It seems so obviously pernicious on Google's part to create a free platform that runs on the cheapest possible hardware, which will set up each next generation with a Google account and use school to train children in using their apps. This enforces Google's position as the default for online tools, and will most likely result in the majority of those students continuing with Google as adults. Schools never have enough money, and Google is taking advantage of this for their own long-term gain.
When I wrote to the school about this issue, I tried to outline my arguments rationally, rather than responding with anger or disappointment. The Head of the school sent a respectful, empathetic reply, and shared privacy policies around the use of my child's data on the platform.
In many places world wide, the implementation of Chromebooks and the Google suite is not the individual school's decision, but a state or province-wide project. I believe the leaders who are making these decisions mean well and want to ensure each child has access to a laptop, no matter what their economic background. What feels imperceptive about all of this is that you don't need Google to run quality software on cheap or even older hardware. Linux will run on a Chromebook3, and certainly schools could look into using refurbished hardware that's in circulation from company IT turnover. Linux offers free, robust solutions here, as do open source software alternatives like LibreOffice and Nextcloud. I am happy to read that some countries in the EU are finally experimenting with this approach in schools in some provinces, but we are a long way off from smart adaptation of open source software in education world-wide.
Problems and looking ahead
The main problem with addressing issues in school as a parent is finding the right balance. While passivity and complacency are not constructive, writing too many emails of complaint may risk pushing you into complainers' corner. You have to pick your battles.
I am not active on social media (with the exception of promotion for this blog) and am therefore not able to gauge how other parents feel, or communicate with them about digital privacy-related issues. Protest will only lead to change when many individuals raise questions about a school's digital practices. I hope that with changing attitudes in the news, the tide will turn, and that schools world-wide will move towards adopting healthier and less naive approaches to teaching young people about digital citizenship in practical ways.
"EdTech needs Schooling" (Privacy International, 24 April 2020)
"France says non to Office 365 and Google Workspace in school" (The Register, 22 November 2022)
"A Danish City Built Google Into Its Schools—Then Banned It" (Wired 23 September 2022)
"Nextcloud for 33K middle school students in France" (Nextcloud.com, 11 March 2022)
"No More Microsoft! This German State Plans to Switch 25,000 Windows PCs to Linux and LibreOffice" (It's FOSS News, 22 November 2021)
-----Discuss on Reddit-----
Subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed.
Find me on Mastodon and Twitter.
Back to Blog
TikTok fined £12.7m for misusing children's data (BBC, 4 April 2023)↩
Montana legislators vote to ban popular social media app TikTok (Al Jazeera, 15 April 2023)↩
Best Linux distros for your Chromebook↩