Should slang-deciphering software be used in US schools?

Schools in the United Kingdom are using software to flag dangerous online conversations for teachers. Could we use the same software in the US?

Nam Y. Huh/AP/FILE
Mark Risinger, 16, checks his Facebook page on his computer as his mother, Amy Risinger, looks on at their home in Glenview, Ill. on October 24, 2013.

Parents are always looking for more insight into their children’s conversations with friends and a software company in the UK seems to have come up with a way of bringing teachers into the language loop by harkening back to William Saffire-style modern slang updates.

It came to light last week that an educational software package available by Impero, a UK-based software developer, has the capability to flag the use of words and slang terms related to bullying and self-harm for teachers, allowing them to step in for the safety of students.

According to The Guardian newspaper, “The software is used by 1,400 schools in the UK and has also been used in the US to combat gangs. It generates reports for teachers identifying problematic online behaviour.”

Jonathan Valentine, founder of Impero, mentioned on Twitter that the software sends an alert to teachers when a student is typing one of the words that falls into the screening parameters.

According to the Guardian report, “The software uses a constantly updated dictionary which includes words that most adults would not understand.”

This sounds like something I would like to see used more extensively in American schools for more than gang-violence prevention.

As a mom, I try to keep up with the new “slanguage" my teens are using, but that’s just to avoid being the clueless parent the kids roll their eyes at.

This software has a practical application that American schools have only just scratched the surface.

Impero has worked with the Anti-Bullying Alliance, students, and teachers to create the dictionary within the software, which includes words that deal with such topics as: sexting, suicide, grooming, self-harm, adult content, eating disorders, bullying and trolling, racism, and homophobia.

As a parent, I am very committed to ending bullying and abuse in our schools, but I worry that at any time my one of my children could be “flagged” by a computer program and singled out for a harmless comment online.

For instance, a teen mentioning their disapproval of “getting naked on camera” – or using the acronym “gnoc” to explain the same thing – could send an alert to the system.

However, it is because of the suicide prevention aspect, more than anything, that I am in support of this software being used in the US.

Today is the funeral for my son's friend, who committed suicide. It was the parents’ in-home discovery of their child harming herself that led to them seeking help for her, but one might wonder what could have been detected online even earlier.

While nobody will ever know if being alerted to this young woman’s self-hurting sooner could have made any difference in the outcome, I am left viewing this software differently because of my son’s friend.

It is worth considering the potential for use of Impero’s software on school and personal home computers.

Your kids may hate you for invading their privacy. Whenever my concerns over their welfare make them angry with me I tell them, “It’s my job to do everything in my power to keep you in this world a good long time to hate on my parenting.”

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