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Platform reveals trends in student mental health, behavior during school closures

The global pandemic has triggered a mental health crisis among our young people.

A recent Co-SPACE study of children, ages 4 to 10, observed during a one-month lockdown, found increased levels of unhappiness, worry, clinginess and physical symptoms related to worry. A May 2020 survey from the National 4-H Council and Harris Poll found that 55% of teens report struggling with anxiety, 45% excessive stress and 43% depression.

None of this surprises Paget Hetherington, vice president of marketing at Gaggle, a digital platform that monitors content on school-owned devices and applications for indicators of potentially harmful behavior.

“We immediately began to see changes in student behavior in the data as soon as schools closed [in the spring],” says Hetherington. “Some changes were not surprising, such as the shift in time when teens are most active online. However, other changes reveal the level of trauma a lockdown can add to a home where there is also stress from job loss, worry about COVID itself, and home and food insecurities.”

Hetherington spoke with SmartBrief Education about what the platform’s data has uncovered. The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity

What did the data reveal in the days and weeks following the closures?

Gaggle analyzed more than 6.25 billion email messages, chats and files over the full 2019-2020 school year. During the last quarter of the school year, the volume of reviewed items spiked sharply: email messages increased by 128%; 40% for files; and 288% for chat messages. Clearly students continued to communicate with each other, but their behavior changed in significant ways from their pre-pandemic behavior.

A notable change was the shift in the hours of student activity. Before the pandemic, 40% of incidents occurred after hours -- from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and weekends -- and 12% occurred overnight, from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.. During the pandemic, these shifted to 55% of the incidents occurring after hours and 22% overnight. This is likely the result of 24/7 access to an electronic device and the natural biorhythms of teens.

What red flags did you see?

There was a 21% increase in explicit content involving minors -- sexual photos, pornographic images or threatening sexual assault -- that required an immediate response from the school district.

We also saw a disturbing number of students reach out to their teachers and fellow students to report abuse in the home during the pandemic. Students reported abuse by parents, caregivers, and others -- even siblings. Four of the five highest weeks of reported abuse occurred from mid-March to mid-May. Imminent threats, defined as a life in danger or threat to the well-being of a person, increased 79% compared to previous weeks in the year when students were in school.

On the upside, since students were physically separated from each other there were fewer opportunities for students to exhibit violence toward each other.

  • Violence toward others decreased 43%
  • Drugs and alcohol incidents decreased 23% 
  • Harassment decreased 31%

Some parents and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have raised concerns about Gaggle, and similar solutions, calling them “surveillance technologies” and citing privacy issues. Should we prioritize student safety over student privacy?

Ask parents what they want -- they want their students to be safe. Ask school districts what they need -- they want to keep students secure when using school-provided technology. Gaggle’s primary mission is to serve those wants and needs.

Gaggle firmly believes in a student’s right to privacy. We recommend that districts notify the community of their Gaggle partnership and have students sign a EULA, or Responsible Use Policy. However, the Children’s Internet Protection Act says that schools “must ensure the safety of minors when using electronic communication tools such as email.”

Gaggle does not monitor students’ personal email or social media accounts. Gaggle only monitors information posted and written using school computers and school-provided G Suite or Microsoft Office 365 accounts, including Docs, Email, Slides, Calendar, Hangouts/Teams, Yammer and so forth. 

The most important metric tracked by our platform is student lives saved each year. While we can verify the number of lives saved year over year increased 28%, the pre-pandemic increase was 11% compared to 32% during the pandemic. This data is clear: A student safety solution is as important to saving lives when students are learning remotely as it is when students are on campus.

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Workforce. Contact her at kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com.

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