Anonymous Postings on Confession Pages, Secret, and Whisper

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on April 11, 2014

Confessions Pages, cyberbullying What many adults don’t understand, they freak out about. Especially as it relates to teens. I’m generalizing here, but you know what I mean – we really don’t want the youth we care for to be having secrets, telling secrets, and keeping secrets away from us. Because we don’t fully trust them, either due to past experiences or due to messages from current events and the popular media. Well, in this environment we have seen the increasing popularity and notoriety of online mediums and platforms over which teens (and adults) can anonymously say whatever they want to those around them (see Justin’s post on Yik Yak) or to a larger social grouping. And it’s worth taking some time to discuss these, so that we know fact from fiction and don’t overreact.

To begin, Confessions sites on social media have received some attention in the press over the last year, and here at the Cyberbullying Research Center we continue to regularly hear about the experiences of teens on Facebook- and Twitter-based pages. . Confession pages allow anyone to share personal secrets, rumors, gossip, and anything else they might want others to know about but are hesitant to post publicly or in a way that is tied to their identity. And, of course, everyone who knows about the page (in a community, or school or other organization) can “like” it and thereby can stay in the loop by receiving its updates in their either in their News Feed or via the Twitter account they are following. At this point, they can then participate as a voyeur, or more actively by liking, commenting on, or sharing specific confessions. 

iowa confessions twitter page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As an example of how it works on, say, Facebook, a user first creates a “Fan” page (meaning, a page that represents a group or brand or entity, instead of a “Profile” page for themselves. Facebook does not require creators of “pages” to reveal their identity. Visitors can then send private messages to the page with specific confessions, and the administrator of the page then posts them publicly to the Wall for all “followers” to see. Another way to keep posts anonymous is to create an email account specifically to receive confessions from others, or set up a form via free online tools such as Google Docs (or Survey Monkey, or even an Ask.fm page). Then, “confessors” can clink on a link, open up the form, share their confession without giving any identifying information, and click “send.”  The person behind it all then receives these anonymous confessions via email, and then can post them for all to see.

Outside of using Facebook or Twitter, other confessional platforms for smartphones have recently gained traction. Secret is a new app that recently came out for iOS (Apple) users only and has been described as an anonymous “community with no names, profiles or photographs.”  When you make a post, it sends it to you and also to a select subset of your friends (i.e., your contacts), and possibly friends of those friends – all of whom (of course) must have the app (or they are not involved at all). The more people like it within the app, the further it will spread. More secrets are shown to a user when they have more friends (based on unique algorithms), with the primary goal being to ensure secrecy and prevent people from finding out who truly said what. According to the creators, “We built Secret for people to be themselves and share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment. We did this by eliminating profile photos and names and by putting the emphasis entirely on the words and images being shared. This way, people are free to express themselves without holding back.”  They also mention that the anonymous nature of Secret allows for people to like, comment, and re-share other people’s posts that may be considered controversial, giving them the freedom to endorse anything without shame.

Similar to Secret is Whisper, which allows users to post anonymous confessions written on different images and is available for Android devices as well. Basically, you are asked to create a username and PIN, upload or select a picture from their vast library, add a custom filter, and then add custom text (whatever you want to whisper to the world). Then, you can decide to share your location, post it with hashtags to enable others to find it, and share it on other social media platforms. People who see it can like it and leave comments just like we’ve grown accustomed to on Facebook and Instagram, and can also share it across other platforms. Oh, and users can private message each other – which I think is an interesting feature which may provide the app with more “stickiness” and frequent usage than other apps. Whisper never knows who you are, doesn’t access your phone’s Contacts, and shows anonymous posts from all over the world (instead of just from your friends).

Anyway, in an effort to prevent bullying and “reduce negative comments,” Secret recently stated that it is “adding features that detect when people’s names are typed into in messages and warn those who would include them to think before they post.”  Relatedly, Whisper’s CEO, Michael Heyward, stated that their app does not allow people to “use anonymity to hurt anyone else.”  In other words, users are not permitted to use proper names in posts (unless they are names of public figures). So, for instance, “Justin Bieber is okay, but Justin from Spanish class is not. Whisper also employs 120 human moderators to comb through posts in real time” (see here for more information).

Anonymous confession posts can vary from sexual fantasies for another student, to a crush on someone, to revealing one’s sexual orientation or another thing that may often be stigmatized or judged. Other posts are cruel and hateful, and clearly represent cyberbullying:

twitter-confession-high-school

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students do understand the negatives that arise when these sites are embraced within certain populations. One recently stated to the media that “they degrade people and make them feel unnecessarily bad about themselves.”  But even so, confession pages have garnered tremendous popularity in some circles for the same reasons that other novel environments breed cyberbullying. As we know, people are “more likely to speak their mind” online if their “words can’t be traced back to them.”  Furthermore, (and as Justin recently stated) teens are “hungry for an online environment where they can interact and communicate that is outside the prying eyes of parents.”

In terms of solutions, victims should always take the time to report these pages on Facebook or Twitter, as they violate their Terms of Service IF (and only if) what is being posted is harassing or threatening. To encourage this, you should remind teens that reporting a problematic account on Facebook or Twitter simply alerts the site to look into it and respond. It does not “out” the person reporting. To reiterate, when you follow the Report links on pieces of content provided by these companies in their site and app infrastructure, the person about whom you are reporting does not get any type of notification that you are the one who reported on them. While I don’t have any experience yet working with the creators of Secret and Whisper, I hope they will follow in the footsteps of Yik Yak and do what they can to combat harassment, threats, stalking, and hate speech because it is in their best interests to create a user community that flourishes in a healthy and functional way.

Schools which struggle with fallout from confession pages or apps must always remember that they can discipline students for their online expressions if it substantially interferes with the learning environment or infringes upon the rights of another student (to feel safe, comfortable, and supported at school). And while it may be difficult to discern the identity of who posted what, it’s not impossible since every posting has a digital footprint (which we will explain further in a future blog). We’ve fleshed out these clauses in great detail here and here, in case you need a refresher. With specific regard to Secret and Whisper (and current and future apps with similar feature-sets), it’s quite likely they will go the way of previous platforms like JuicyCampus.com and Formspring.me) because most eventually devolve into a “network full of lies and hate.” We just have to continue to educate teens to watch their words even when presented with a prime opportunity to be disrespectful or cruel towards someone else. These opportunities will often be turning points in their lives that dictate how they turn out. As such, taking the narrow road in spite of internal and external pressure to do otherwise is what they need to habituate now, so that it becomes their regular course of action during adulthood.

Outside of the cyberbullying issues, though, it’s important to discuss some of the positives of these environments when considering these environments. Not doing so is neglectful because the use of technology is always a double-edged sword. A DV High Confessions page administrator has commented that although Confession pages “stirred up drama,” they were a “great way for students to voice their thoughts and feelings,” because “these days, there’s a crazy amount of stress that just comes with being a teenager and in high school alone, so being anonymous makes it easier for people to express themselves.”  And so it brings teens together to vent, commiserate, and find common ground in each other’s experiences, which reminds them that they are not alone and that their situation (as painful as it may be) is survivable.

amherst confession 1

 

 

 

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It doesn’t happen every single time, but it does happen a lot: teens are not sociopaths, and have good hearts, and do take the time to reach out and extend kindness towards one another in this way. And it clearly matters and makes a difference. Perhaps similar to your own personal experiences growing up, I remember clearly how difficult adolescence was, and how at times I felt like the tornado of emotions and stress and insecurities and pain and pressure that swirled around me was going to swallow me whole. And I did have a couple of online pen-pals at that time to whom I felt free to pour out my heart and vulnerabilities in ways I would simply not feel comfortable expressing to my parents, or a school counselor, or even a friend in real life because words typed with my fingers flowed easily while words spoken from my mouth fumbled and sputtered and tripped on themselves as I tried to convey how I felt. And those people were kind to me. Having this outlet and connection helped me so much, just like it is helping so many teens right now. And that is the story with pretty much every technology.

I remain incredibly aware of, and sensitive to, the potential for cyberbullying with these pages and apps, but never want to dismiss an app outright until we have had time for its possibly positive uses to surface. As youth-serving adults, we need to constantly support positive, healthy, and healing self-expression online and offline, but still set and hold to a hard line on expressions that harm others. Education, awareness, reminders, consequences, empathy-building, and conflict resolution skills continue to be most important in combatting harassing and threatening speech made via technology or in the real world. Who knows how long Secret and Whisper and Confession pages on Facebook and Twitter will attract attention. And even when they lose their luster, there will always be other apps and even networks (e.g., Tor) that provide anonymous communications and functionality to users. As such, I’d rather we focus our efforts on building an ethical and character-based foundation for decision-making within our youth. This way, they ideally do the right thing irrespective of whether everyone is watching them or no one knows who they are.

Image sources:

http://www.thirdparent.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/twitter-confession-high-school.png
https://www.facebook.com/Amhersthighconfessions
https://www.facebook.com/confesshs
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fremont-High-School-Confessions/425401247544037
http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2014/03/anonymous-social-networking

 

Yik Yak

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 7, 2014

yikyakThere is a new cell phone application that is gaining notoriety at the speed of light among some groups of teens (as well as their teachers and parents). In essence, Yik Yak is pretty much a location-based anonymous Twitter feed. The free app allows users to post anonymous comments that can be viewed by anyone who is within 5 miles of the person who posted it. Or at least the 500 who are the closest. When installing the app, the user gets a warning message stating that the app contains mature material and is therefore only appropriate for users 17 and older. But that hasn’t stopped high school students in some cities from signing up in droves.

One can easily see the attraction for students in using this app: they can post nameless comments that others in their immediate vicinity can see. As such, it is perfectly tailored for a school environment. Often the comments are mundane observations for their classmates about what is going on around them. But they could include harassing messages, answers to tests, sexually explicit comments, hate speech, or bomb threats. Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have sent letters home to parents, educating them about the app, and imploring them to see to it that it is removed from their child’s phone. I appreciate the steps these principals are taking to inform parents, but wonder whether the effort will really result in fewer students using it.

Alternative to Facebook?

Teens are hungry for an online environment where they can interact and communicate that is outside the prying eyes of parents. Facebook is still by far the most popular social media environment for teens, but they don’t seem to visit the site as frequently, or for as long, as they once did. One reason for that is the fact that most parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers) are on Facebook and can therefore see much of what teens are posting. So they are looking for an alternative place to hang out and communicate without adults looking over their virtual shoulders. Yik Yak has apparently served that purpose for some.

We were first alerted to the app a couple of weeks ago when we received a report through our website encouraging us to investigate it: “The amount of hateful comments is basically every other comment. It is too much to even report. Cyberbullying is already a huge problem today and the last thing we need is an anonymous app that allows one to do that. Soon Facebook, twitter, and other social medias will be the least of our worries when it comes to cyberbullying and suicide.”

We get these kinds of reports frequently and often the new app that is mentioned disappears before it can gain national attention. Something was different with this app. In just the last week or so, quite a few people have contacted us with questions about how to protect themselves and their schools from its potential wrath. Because cell phone apps and online environments are constantly changing, however, we suggest that, instead of focusing on banning a specific site or particular piece of technology, parents and educators should work to instill good values in their children and students so that they choose not to use them in ways that cause harm. Attacking particular applications to stop cyberbullying is a lot like trying to win a decent prize at the carnival by playing that whack-a-mole game. The odds are stacked against you. The target always shifts.

It’s Probably Not As Bad As We Think

Before getting too worked up about this latest “threat,” it is important that we keep some perspective. First of all, Yik Yak’s reach is still extremely small with only a couple hundred thousand users (compared to over 30 million on another popular and fear-inducing app: Snapchat). Second, we know from more than a decade’s worth of research that most teens are not misusing technology or mistreating others while online. Snapchat, for example gained infamy about a year ago as the “sexting app” because the images taken and sent using the app seemed to disappear after 10 seconds. Most teens realize that even though the image may no longer be visible on the 5-inch screen in front of them, it doesn’t mean it is really completely gone (despite implicit promises from the app itself). The vast majority of teens use Snapchat to send goofy, yet mostly harmless, selfie pictures to their friends and even though some will misuse it, they are in the minority.

The same is likely true for new apps like Yik Yak. Sure, the anonymous nature of the posts may embolden users to let down their guard and post things they normally wouldn’t say in a face-to-face interaction. But again, most teens are savvy enough at this point to realize that eventually it could come back around to them. In fact, there was already at least one example of a student being arrested for what was posted on the app. Moreover, unlike some sites and apps, it seems that the creators of Yik Yak are being responsive to the concerns of adults. According to the Chicago Tribune, company officials have agreed to disable the app in the Chicago area while schools attempt to get a handle on the significant problems created by it.

Time will tell whether Yik Yak will really catch on among teens (or the adults who were its original intended audience). One thing is for certain: this won’t be the last time we hear about an app that is creating problems among students in schools.

Unplug for a While!

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on February 6, 2014

tweet after exiting building
Many of us have become so dependent on technology, we don’t know what to do with ourselves without our favorite devices.  It’s almost sad (for me, at least) to consider how we don’t know what to do with ourselves if we can’t take out our phone at any moment to check our Instagram feed, or Twitter followers, or Facebook notifications.  And how we really need people to be reaching out to us and so we are constantly texting and Snapchatting to keep from feeling alone. And how all of this has become deeply tied into our emotional and psychological well-being – how we feel about ourselves and our worth and our importance to others.

Some are realizing that this dependence on nonstop online connectivity may be unhealthy for them, and may be compromising certain areas of their lives – such as their ability to study and focus on a singular task for a long period of time (instead of constantly multitasking), or their ability to convey our thoughts eloquently in our writings and essays, or the quality of our real-world friendships and relationships which often need more than quick 140-character messages to develop and deepen and thrive.  And maybe this dependence on technology makes them more likely to respond spontaneously and emotionally to something that happens in their lives – which can lead to problem behaviors online like cyberbullying.

So, to prove a point, some people are making the choice to unplug for a while – just to see what life could be like.  We are sure you know of some of your friends or peers who have deactivated Facebook for a week or a month (or longer!) because they were sick of reading about other people’s lives instead of actually and fully living their own.  We’ve heard of others who are deleting SnapChat for a season it has become a tremendous time-suck for them.  We like hearing stories like this, not because social media is bad but because acting and interacting in the real world is better!

Maybe you could give up your favorite social networking app for some time.  Maybe you could turn your phone to Airplane mode for a few hours every day, just to allow yourself a clear mind.  And maybe you could take notes and see how your life is different, and then share what you learned with the rest of your school, either in person or over the announcements, or in the school newspaper, or through any other medium.

Maybe you’ll say it was really, really hard to feel connected to others without your phone.  But maybe you’ll say it freed you up to be more present and involved with your younger brother or sister, or girlfriend, or husband, or parents – which led to a better situation at home.  Maybe you’ll say it allowed you to finish a class paper or a work project in a lot shorter time than usual simply because you didn’t have any distractions.  Maybe you’ll say it freed you up to do something you’ve really been meaning to do but never found the time!  Maybe you’ll say that it allowed you to reevaluate why you post the things that you post, and how you realize that many of us do a lot of things online to get others to like us and want to know us more.  Maybe you’ll say that it kept you from getting caught up in a bunch of nonsense and drama that people are talking about but really doesn’t matter at all. The goal is to mix it up a little, and challenge the status quo – especially in your own life.  And hopefully it’ll encourage others to do the same!  Let us know of your successes and struggles with this if you decide to tackle it – we want to hear from you!

Smartphone Apps and Bullying

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on November 5, 2012

I’ve been chatting with Canadian cyberbullying educator and speaker Lissa Albert about various apps for cell phones and their potential for misuse, and it has been one fascinating conversation.  As such, she volunteered to write up a summary for our blog – which really paints a comprehensive picture as to what is available out there for potential cyberbullies.  Please let us and her know your thoughts based on your experiences and observations!  Note: We have decided not to directly hyperlink to each problematic app so as not to give them more traffic and accessibility than already exists.  Here we go.

 

We all know that cyberbullying takes place using technology-driven communication tools. Smartphones allow for access to social media platforms as well as texting, and provide a host of benefits to their users in the realms of communication, education, ecommerce, and entertainment. However, some misbehaviors are also enabled through these devices.  But with smartphones, in addition to being able to access the Internet, email and social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, there are downloadable applications – known as “apps” – which are user-friendly mechanisms to enable easy interaction with the site from the device. The apps market has soared with every incarnation of smartphone, and the Apple store boasts over 600,000 different apps. Apps are created by both phone manufacturers and by independent developers. There are yearly conferences for app developers, much online collaboration, and exponential growth in this industry.  Some apps are freeand some run from $0.99 to $4.99.

 

Besides Facebook and Twitter apps, other popular social networking platforms – such as Formspring and the seemingly innocuous Club Penguin – have apps readily available for smartphones. These apps allow the user to connect directly to the service without having to go into the browser, and have therefore made it easier to engage in wrongdoing.  With these possibilities, it is not surprising that someone would either invent new apps, or find a use for existing apps to facilitate various forms of cyberbullying. Below are some examples of how smartphones are actually, and actively, contributing to online cruelty.

 

Ugly Meter has gained a lot of popularity. After being mentioned on the radio show of a popular “shock jock” who found it amusing, this app began selling and has, to date, been downloaded over 5,000,000 times. The way it works is to scan a photo and using facial contours and patterns, allowing it to then rate  the subject on the “ugly scale” of 1-100. While the developers of the app stress it is only a game, it has many experts concerned that it will be used to lower the self-esteem of already-insecure kids.  Inexplicably, many mainstream talk-show personalities (Anderson Cooper, for one) have mentioned and demonstrated the app without mentioning its potential for hurtful uses.  This, by the way, is very discouraging because Anderson has always been such a strong anti-bullying advocate.

 

Enemy Graph is an app that allows the user to take Facebook friends and add them to a list of their enemies.  As soon as a user has declared someone an enemy, that declaration appears on their profile, visible to everyone. (“John has declared Jane his enemy”)  It also gives the user the ability to declare one “Archenemy”. The developers defend its use, primarily stating that it is used to separate those “friends” on one’s list who have differences with the user, instead of the “likes” or similarities users share. They claim the app was created to “explore social dissonance on Facebook.”

 

In a test of the app, trending “enemies” listed included “Farmville” (a game-simulation as maligned as it is lauded), Justin Bieber, and various politicians and media personalities. However, it gave statistics at the top of the page, which declared the user’s number of enemies as well as how many have listed him/her as their enemy. These “enemies” are culled from the user’s member list, and this is where the danger comes into play. A disagreement or falling out between friends can easily lead them to list one or both as enemies, and with youth, we have seen that become a fast-spreading sentiment that can lead to isolation, ostracizing, and further ridicule/humiliation.

 

The developers do not think this will result in cyberbullying; in an interview, Dean Terry believes it will simply lead to conversation. However, it is more likelythat cyberbullying would almost naturally arise from use of this app, and the developers seem to defend it when they state: “In a way we are misusing the word “enemy” just as much as Facebook and others have misused “friend”.

 

If this app were used the way the developers picture it (fun, social, used only to list the “things” users dislike), there would be no risk. But as with any tool, it has both positive and negative potential. when tools make it easier.  Denise Restauri, in an article for Forbes magazine, states: “EnemyGraph gives bullies and people with a sick sense of humor a great way to bully and attack.”

 

To be sure, this seems an  an understatement – the app can lead to tragic consequences such as depression and suicide. No chances can be taken, and there is currently a movement by psychologist Dr. Barbara Lavi to try to get Facebook to remove the app.

 

Bully Block is promoted as a way for targets to block, report, and record the bully in action. There is a feature to block intrusions from those one feels is bullying them (by having the bully get a busy signal, or pre-recorded message). But it also employs an audio recorder – billed as a “stealth recorder to capture bullies in action”. This app secretly records the bully (ostensibly) and with one touch of a button, forwards the audio as an email or text message to authorities (again, ostensibly). A third feature captures what the developer calls “inappropriate texts, pics or videos” via text message or email. It is intended for teens to forward these to their parents or authorities. It is also intended for employees to forward those types of missives to their HR departments.

 

The inherent problem in this app is that it has the strong potential to be misused. It is not a huge leap of the imagination to think that a savvy bully would download this app in order to use the recorder to capture compromising audio of his/her victim, or use the forwarding feature to engage in  online bullying or even sexting behavior.

 

It can never be assumed that any tool will be used precisely as intended, and that is a primary concern with such apps that allow for surreptitious photography capture, audio recording, or one-touch forwarding of material.

 

As an aside, apps that claim to prevent bullying are not as effective as taking action in the situation. As Internet Safety expert Nancy Willard has stated often, teaching kids to swim is a lot more effective than putting up fences around swimming pools. Just as filters don’t prevent users from accessing certain websites, apps don’t effectively prevent cyberbullying. Teaching youth, as well as adults, to understand and embrace a respectful digital society is a lot more effective than entrusting safety and well-being to an app. Why resort to an electronic application to do what people can do more effectively, and more potently? Smartphone apps have their place, but should never replace the interaction people have enjoyed for centuries.

 

There is more. Secret Camera bills itself as a camera to take photos of “friends and pets” with no shutter sound or visible thumbnail. Devil Camera does the same. Using the front-facing camera, users can take photos of people behind them and with no thumbnail or displayed capture on the screen, the subjects have no idea they have just been photographed.

 

In researching these apps, I found a forum user asking for such an app, saying he wanted it to take “amusing pics on the bus”. At best, this is an invasion of privacy. At worst, it is blatant cyberbullying. A respondent provided links to a camera app (TubeCrush) as well as a site where those types of photos can be posted. He says, “It was designed it to be perfect for …people wanting to play pranks on their friends, but it’s also great for taking shots in museums and galleries, or for street photography which relies on candid images. (All perfectly legal so don’t worry)!” The various apps found ostensibly promote the user’s safety while capturing video or photos; as such, those prone to cyberbullying behavior will see it as their protection while harming others with furtive photography. The fact that this poster felt it necessary to add a disclaimer of legality shows that there even s/he is aware of the more deceptive uses of the app.

 

Some other types of apps are worthy of mention.  These are listed below.

 

Anonymous Texting There are a number of apps available for Android as well as iPhone platforms that allow the user to send text messages anonymously or with randomized numbers that mask their identity. There is at least one website that acts as a web-based anonymous texting app. There are even websites to instruct users how to send anonymous texts, with the disclaimer:  “Please don’t use this information to stalk, harass or threaten anyone.” The problem is that no disclaimer will deter someone intent upon doing just that. And as technology evolves, cyberbullies are coming up with more inventive and insidious ways to harass their victims.

 

Demeaning, insulting, pranking apps A search for apps using the keyword “insult” yielded an alarming number of various apps, most free to download, that not only provide insults but the platform to deliver them. For example, there is an insult generator that allows the user to have their cell phone “say” the insult aloud, or text it to someone. There is now a “re-text” button on this app which allows the user to send newly generated insults to the most recent recipient, which could lead to a barrage of insults to one identified victim. As well, there were apps that manipulated  available digital photos to ridicule the subject. Under category headings “lifestyle” and “entertainment”, the apps are readily available to anyone seeking vicious comments or graphics to hurt the feelings of another person.

 

Overall, though most users participate on social media sites in responsible and procial ways, these apps do provide  opportunities for those so inclined to cyberbully others. Facebook used to have an app called “Honesty Box” – which encouraged its members to tell others what they thought without being identified. Not only did it encourage negative messages, many of them were filled with inappropriate sexual notes. The app was shut down in 2008, but replaced with one called “Everyword”. Signing in with Facebook or Twitter, users submit one word to other users, to describe that person. There is a box at the bottom of the dialogue box to be checked if the submission is to be made anonymously. It is still an active app, though it took a search to find it as it is not overtly publicized on either social media platform. It also has the potential to encourage a devastating deluge of humiliation and abuse.

 

It is obvious that as smartphones and social media apps continue to evolve, the means and methods to inflict harm online will remain. How do we combat it? How do we stop misuse of apps or the development of those with the potential to cause harm? Speak up. Speak out. Inform developers that their apps are objectionable with regard to how they are either blatantly or more furtively enabling hateful and humiliating behaviors. Inform people talking about the app, or using it, that they are contributing to a culture tolerant or even supportive of cyberbullying . Write blog entries, articles, media personalities utilizing or publicizing the apps, and emphatically point out that we must be very sensitive to the ways in which certain smartphone apps can wreak emotional and psychological havoc in the lives of others.

Teens and Technology, School District Policy Issues, 2012-2013

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on September 7, 2012

With the beginning of the school year upon us again, I thought it might be valuable to review a very important topic. One of the most important steps a district can take to help protect their students and protect themselves from legal liability is to have a clear and comprehensive policy regarding bullying and harassment, technology, and their intersection: cyberbullying.

Almost every state requires districts to have a comprehensive policy in place, and generally involve one (or more) of the following elements:

1. requirement to add “cyberbullying” or “electronic bullying” to current anti-bullying policies;
2. provision of specific graduated consequences and remedial actions for cyberbullying;
3. provision to allow administrators to take reasonable action when off-campus actions have affected on-campus order;
4. requirement to develop new investigative, reporting and disciplinary procedures in cyberbullying cases;
5. Mandate that schools create and implement prevention programming (such as Internet safety, ethics, etiquette training and curricula).

In our award-winning book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard, we fleshed out what we believe are the most important components of an effective school cyberbullying policy. This stemmed from our research into what schools were currently doing, and what was working, and what was not. Apart from the aforementioned elements, we believe that tying bullying/cyberbullying prevention/response to a more holistic initiative to improve school climate will be most promising. Let’s explain further the elements that should comprise these policies, so you can make sure your school has solid footing before you deal with any incidents this year.

First, it is important that the policy clearly defines the behaviors it seeks to proscribe. The more specific the policy is, the more likely it will withstand legal challenges. As William Shepherd, a Statewide Prosecutor in Florida’s Office of the Attorney General cautions, however, “The law or policy should be specific, but behavior changes over time, so you must have the ability to grow with the times.”

Also, we list below several forms of bullying that should be clearly delineated in your policy. Generally speaking, any communication that has been perceived by a student as unwanted, vulgar, obscene, sexually explicit, demeaning, belittling, defaming in nature, or is otherwise disruptive to a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate its students in a safe environment, or causes a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress or fear of bodily injury, should be subject to discipline.

Forms of Bullying

Bullying can occur by one individual or a group of individuals, can be direct or indirect, and can take the following forms:

A. “Physical bullying” – demonstrations of aggression by pushing, kicking, hitting, gesturing, or otherwise invading the physical space of another person in an unwelcome manner. It also includes the unwanted tampering with or destruction of another person’s property.

B. “Verbal bullying” – demonstrations of aggression through insults, teasing, cursing, threatening, or otherwise expressing unkind words toward another person.

C. “Relational bullying” – demonstrations of aggression through exclusion, rejection, and isolation to damage a person’s position and relationship within a social group.

D. “Cyberbullying” – the intentional and repeated harm of others through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.

Cyberbullying can result in discipline whether it occurs on or off campus, irrespective of whether it involves an electronic device at school, at home, or at a third-party location, and if it results in a substantial disruption of the school learning environment as defined in this policy.

It is also important to remember that many districts already have policies in place that prohibit various forms of harassment, including harassment based on race or sex. Any behavior that constitutes sexual harassment, for example, should be handled under those provisions, irrespective of whether the behavior is also considered bullying or cyberbullying.

With regard to penalties, any student found to be participating in, contributing to, and/or encouraging acts of cyberbullying and/or harassment towards another student or staff member must be disciplined. Your policy must identify what specific actions will be taken. To determine the severity of the harassment or discrimination, the following may be considered: how the misconduct affected one or more student’s education; the type, frequency, and duration of the misconduct; the number of persons involved; the subject(s) of harassment or discrimination; the situation in which the incident occurred; and other related incidents at the school. Any cyberbullying that has been perceived as a criminal act, such as a threat to one’s personal or physical safety, will be subject to discipline and result in the notification of law enforcement.

Discipline can include a number of different actions. These can include:

• Parental contact
• Behavioral contracts
• Loss of privileges (either in-school or extracurricular)
• Conferences with students, parents, teachers, or administrative staff
• Interventions by school guidance personnel
• School service work or student work detail
• Removal of student from class
• Loss of bus privileges (parents are thus responsible for transportation)
• In-school alternative assignments or intervention programs
• Detentions (before, during, after school, or on Saturday)
• Restitution
• Restorative Justice
• Assignment to alternative program in lieu of suspension days
• Suspension – removal of student from school for up to 10 days
• Assignment to an alternative educational facility
• Expulsion – removal of student from school for remainder of year plus one additional year

We’ve discussed before that it is critical to link specific behaviors with specific disciplinary outcomes so that students know exactly what may happen if they are caught engaging in cyberbullying behaviors. Don’t be afraid to think creatively about alternative sanctions instead of relying on detention or suspension. For example, cyberbullies could be required (based on the grievance) to research and write an essay on the negative affects of cyberbullying. They could also be required to write a formal apology to the aggrieved party or parties. Disciplinary outcomes should be considered and carried out on a case-by-case basis.

We really think that you should be as specific as possible in your policy – make sure you cover harassment and cheating and disrupting the class environment by texting or Facebooking, and talk about threats and explicit pictures and pornography laws and police intervention. Clearly outline the consequences for prohibited behaviors. Get students and parents in on this discussion. Schools will have problems as the school community gets used to these changes, but hopefully the problems will be few and far between and will get better with time.

Students will learn appropriate behaviors and these should—in time—become the norm if a positive school climate is prioritized and established. For example, ten years ago, cell phones were much more of a problem in our college classrooms than they are now. University students, at least in our experience as professors, have gotten better at cell phone etiquette and are not letting the devices distract from learning. Sure, a phone occasionally will go off in class, but usually the student is apologetic and immediately acknowledges the faux pas. Of course middle and high school students are different from those in a university, but we are optimistic that we can work through the same challenges at the secondary school level.

After a policy is created or revised, the school community needs to be educated about it. Students should be informed about the circumstances under which their personal portable electronic devices can be confiscated and searched. They should also be reminded that anything they do on a school-owned device is subject to review and appropriate discipline. This should be explained to students and parents, possibly through assemblies, orientations, community meetings, and messaging strategies (voice mails, memorandums, etc.). Be intentional about conveying these messages, and don’t just assume they know your policy! As a student recently told us:

“I think it’s a good idea that all schools include in their handbook definitions of the types of bullying and sexting as well as the consequences and/ or disciplinary actions, but then perhaps kids should be quizzed on this every school year. Call me an airhead, but I never read the school’s student handbook until my family moved to Florida my junior year of high school. I remember I got in trouble the first day of school because I clearly did not read the dress code part of the student handbook. My old school handed out agendas and handbooks at the beginning of the school year, but no one ever read them. Those things would just get stuffed at the bottom of our lockers. If all schools enforced something as simple as reading the student handbook and made sure students understand what they’re reading, then I think they would be a step closer to educating kids that they can get help if they’re being bullied.
—Anonymous student from Florida

We’ll talk more about policy and school climate in our next blog, so look for that next week!