by Hailey Nettler and Sarah Slavin
It seemed like any other morning. Students scurried to their lockers and grabbed their books for first period. They connected to the school’s Wi-Fi and started to send one of their many daily selfies. But this day was different: Snapchat had been blocked.
Earlier this month, Snapchat was added to the list of blocked social media sites in Westfield schools, joining the ranks of Facebook and Instagram. In light of Snapchat's massive popularity, this block raised questions of how the school district chooses and implements blocks on sites.
Snapchat wasn't blocked until recently because it was not as popular when the blocking of sites first began. “We started to have more instances where Snapchat was involved. That’s when the decision was [made] that Snapchat needed to go,” said WHS Assistant Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson.
Most students are opposed to this latest restriction on social media use. Junior Olivia Scheuermann said: “I think it’s unreasonable [that they blocked Snapchat] because there are just so many apps that have accumulated now. Instagram is blocked, Facebook [is blocked] and Snapchat was really one of the only popular apps that wasn’t. I think everyone was affected by it and everyone feels that our freedom is starting to be taken away.”
Nelson and fellow WHS Assistant Principals Mr. James DeSarno and Ms. Maggie McFadden explained that social media can become a distraction in class. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teenagers use social media daily, and 41 percent of teens use Snapchat.
Nelson added: “The whole purpose of having Wi-Fi is so that you can make use of our smart devices in the classrooms. The purpose of having Wi-Fi is not so that you can be on social media.”
In addition to causing distractions, DeSarno said: “It’s a safety issue in the school. We deal with a lot of discipline issues that derive from social media. There’s no control over those sites. [They] cause a lot of problems in this building.” Limiting Snapchat will, the administration hopes, decrease the number of cyberbullying cases in school. According to DeSarno, social media are usually involved in the incidents they receive. If they can contain some of the incidents by blocking social media during school hours, that is better than nothing.
One thing to note is that students can still access all social media apps using their own data plans, when there is service. Regardless, students have found a way around the system—through yet another app. Betternet, a virtual private network (VPN), and other applications allow access to the blocked social media websites, while still being connected to the school’s Wi-Fi. Although this app doesn’t work all the time, it certainly can get students around the blocks.
Mr. Brian Auker, the Westfield district chief technology officer, said: “Students using an app to override the blocks is in violation of the acceptable-use policy that governs their use of our computer network. The agreement was signed by all the students in the first few days of school. It is up to the administration to deal with this issue, but students could lose their Wi-Fi privileges at WHS.”
Many students who were interviewed thought that the principal decides whether or not to block a social media site. But this is not the case. It is not completely up to the WHS administrators because these sites are blocked throughout the entire Westfield school district.
DeSarno said: “Any type of policy or procedure has to go through a chain of command and go through a process. So social media is no different than the code of conduct, or the attendance policy [or] homework policy.”
In addition to blocks decided on by administrators, some sites are screened through a computer algorithm. Cisco, a company employed by the district, filters access to sites with hate speech or other inappropriate content, Auker explained.
Sometimes the blocks suggested by Cisco can be problematic because the flagged sites may actually be useful or educational. If a teacher needs an app or website for that has been blocked, they can request for that site to be unblocked. (Auker said that on Monday, for example, a teacher requested access to an educational site that had been blocked because of its games.) Auker, and if needed, Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan, then check to see if the site can be unblocked safely.
So is the Snapchat block “inconvenient and bothersome,” as sophomore Carly Ciccia has said? If you are among the 72 percent of teens who, according to cnn.com, immediately respond to social media notifications, then yes. But will the block stop students from finding their way to their social media accounts in school? Ciccia mentioned that while loophole apps exist, they also drain the phone’s battery. And a dead phone is of no use.
“I definitely think the school wins the battle,” Ciccia said.