For decades, school bullying was largely ignored. The issue was often considered just part of growing up. Even in situations where the bullying was obvious and easily identified, the penalties were often nonexistent. Kids were left to fend for themselves. Just recently, the nation seems to have turned a corner. The issue of bullying has drawn more attention in the past few years than it has for decades. Unfortunately, just as efforts to combat bullying have grown, the tools of bullying have diversified and grown more difficult to control. While parents were often the last to know of bullying either by or against their children, a relatively new cell phone app is making it even harder for parents to keep up.
An app called After School has spread across thousands of high school campuses. The app is specifically designed to be accessible to teenagers and not to parents and administrators. Users are asked to verify their status as high school students using Facebook and an algorithm exists to block users who are found to be posing as students. The goal of After School was ostensibly to provide a safe place for teens to discuss difficult or awkward topics anonymously. Somewhat predictably, that anonymity quickly made it a forum for bullying and abuse.
In one case, a 15-year-old user of the app saw her phone number posted, along with instructions to contact her to get photos. The teen was forced to change her number based on the harassing messages she received. Bullies, emboldened by anonymity, can harass, humiliate and attack people at will.
An earlier version of After School was barred from Apple’s App Store due to the potential for abuse. The latest version has several enhanced safety features and may prevent the most obvious forms of bullying. However, there is ample evidence that threats, taunts and other forms of abuse are still occurring. The apps specific exclusion of adults makes it that much more difficult for parents to protect their children from bullying. By mistaking anonymity for safety, the designers of the app are exposing children to harm.
Source: The Washington Post, “Millions of teens are using a new app to post anonymous thoughts, and most parents have no idea,” by Moriah Balingit, 8 December 2015