A social media experiment designed to teach teens about cyber safety has backfired on a private girls’ school in Christchurch, causing concern for students who unwittingly shared personal information with their older peers.
Year 12 students at St Margaret’s College set up several social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, assisted by teachers, as part of a health project about cyber safety and cyber citizenship.
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During the project, several year 10 students were individually invited to a Snapchat account called ‘Merivale Gossip Girl’. The year 10 students shared personal information via the photo messaging service, unaware the account was operated and controlled by teachers.
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It is understood the students felt tricked when they realised the social media account was part of a school project.
A source close to the school said parents were “ropeable” about what happened.
There had been talk about how it had upset already fragile young women and parents were talking amongst themselves about what action could be taken.
In a statement, executive principal Gillian Simpson said year 12 students had conducted research projects as part of their NCEA health studies for several years.
Some of the projects involved creating and monitoring social media accounts to help students and their parents or caregivers better understand the risks of inappropriate online communications.
She confirmed concerns had been raised with the college by parents and students about this year’s social media project.
“While we cannot go into the nature of these concerns at this time for privacy reasons, both the board and the executive principal are taking them seriously.”
Simpson, staff and the board of trustees had met with parents and students involved and “apologised for any unintentional hurt that this year’s project has caused”.
The college had invited experts from the Ministry of Education to help review how the project was set up and carried out.
“This style of real-world research has proven to be a valuable resource for St Margaret’s College students and parents or caregivers in past years.
“St Margaret’s welcomes any opportunity to improve the way that we can continue to support our students and parents through the college’s wellbeing programmes.”
In a letter sent to parents to allay concerns on Tuesday, Simpson said the project had drawn a “greater buy in” from students than anticipated.
“There is some interesting data for us as a school and you as parents to understand.
“There has also been some upset and anxiety particularly from girls who have actively shared information. The learnings are hard hitting in some cases.”
Simpson said in the letter that a parent evening was planned for Monday with a panel of experts and chaired by her.
“We are in partnership with you in addressing the serious implications and potentially devastating results of inappropriate and unkind use of social media by your daughters.
“Please keep communicating with us. Your daughters are so precious to us all.”
Ministry deputy secretary Katrina Casey said concerns had been raised with the ministry about the project.
“We are providing support and guidance to the school and we will assist them with the review of the project if required.
“We will continue to work with St Margaret’s College to ensure they are able to support the young people who have been affected.”
The social media project comes amid concerns about new anonymous feedback app Sarahah.
The app was originally designed in Saudi Arabia for employees to give anonymous criticism to their employers, but had become popular among teens.
A potentially dangerous feature of the app was the ability to physically track users with an open privacy setting.
The New Zealand Council for Educational Research survey, released this week, found the weekly rate of students being bullied at 82 large secondary schools ranged from 2 to 26 per cent.
Overall nearly 9000 children – 15 per cent of those surveyed – reported being bullied at least weekly.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR CHILD SAFE ONLINE
– Install software on your computer that either blocks or restricts content so your children cannot access certain sites, or monitors activity so you can review online behaviour.
– Know who your children are making contact with online. If they are not your children’s actual friends then question their cyber relationship.
– Know what social networking sites your child is on and what information they are posting.
– Check your children understand the dangers of posting personal information on social networking sites.
– Do not allow your children to use the internet in private areas of your home.
– If you or your child becomes suspicious about a person online, stop contact immediately. If necessary, delete the app.
Further advice is available on the police website and at Netsafe.