Anonymous Postings on Confession Pages, Secret, and Whisper
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.
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:
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.
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.
Ban School, Open Facebook
There is much consternation among parents and educators alike about the perceived criminogenic nature of social networking websites. Despite some evidence that its popularity among some teens is beginning to wane, Facebook is still the most prominent figure in this space. As such, it tends to receive the brunt of the blows, with fervent calls from well-meaning adults to ban teen access to the site, and others like it. Recall one principal’s plea to parents over three years ago: “There is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None.” To be sure, there are plenty of good reasons to limit time on social media, especially for younger Internet users. But when it comes to bullying behaviors specifically, the evidence is clear that the school is a much more “dangerous” place to hang out than Facebook.
Bullying vs. Cyberbullying
At its core, all forms of bullying involve deliberate and repeated hurtful actions directed toward another who can’t easily defend him or herself. While technology has created additional avenues and opportunities for this to occur, it really hasn’t created a whole new class of bullies who only harm others from afar. In general, those who bully online, also bully at school.
Moreover, just about every study that has included measures of both bullying at school and bullying online has shown that the former still occurs much more frequently than the latter. I realize the counter-intuitiveness of this statement, but the consistency of this discrepancy across varying studies is compelling. For example, the National Crime Victimization Survey’s biennially-conducted survey of students (the School Crime Supplement) showed that 28% of primary and secondary students had been bullied at school while 9% of students had been bullied online in 2011 (the most recent year available).
Similarly, in all nine of our formal surveys conducted over the last nine years, the prevalence rates for cyberbullying have been significantly less than traditional school bullying. In our 2010 study involving 4,400 middle and high school students, 26% reported that they had been recently bullied at school while 8% said that they had been recently bullied online (4% on Facebook specifically). In October of 2013 we surveyed a few hundred middle schoolers in a small school in the Midwest and found that 20% had been bullied at school in the previous 30 days, while 5% were bullied on Facebook during that same time.
To be fair, some evidence shows that the gap may be narrowing. Bullying at school has been steady or declining in recent years while cyberbullying may be creeping up, but certainly not at the pace that most perceive.
One of the challenges in trying to make sense of all of the data on different forms of bullying is that survey questions are often phrased problematically. If you ask someone—especially a teen—if they have “been bullied,” unless instructed otherwise they are going to report any experience with bullying, irrespective of where it happened. Asking, for instance, if anyone had spread rumors or repeatedly said mean or hurtful things to them doesn’t specify a particular location so we don’t know exactly where it happened. As a result, it is quite possible that some bullying experiences that are interpreted as having occurred at school may have happened online (or, even more likely, it occurred in both environments).
There is no question that we hear about more high profile cases of cyberbullying on the nightly news, which gives the illusion that it is the more prevalent problem. And with the rapid expansion of technology in the hands of our teenagers over the last decade or so, it isn’t unreasonable to presume a precipitous increase in technology-related problematic behaviors. But it’s just not true.
Focus on Cyberbullying Still Necessary
Please don’t misunderstand – I am certainly not suggesting that we should ignore cyberbullying. It’s still a significant problem that affects a meaningful number of teens. This past summer we scrutinized all of the peer-reviewed academic journal articles we could find that included cyberbullying prevalence rates. Across the 55 papers we examined that included victimization data, on average, about 21% of the teens surveyed said they had been cyberbullied. While the numbers published in these paper vary widely (from a low of 2.3% to a high of 72%), one thing is certain: cyberbullying is happening, and it doesn’t have to.
We need to condemn bullying in all its forms. Whether it happens online or at school—on Facebook or on the bus—efforts need to be taken to prevent and appropriately respond to all instances of serious and repetitive mistreatment. But, to limit access to Facebook for the purposes of preventing cyberbullying is akin to restricting access to school with the goal of preventing face-to-face bullying. Just as someone could spread rumors about another person at school without the target being there, the same is true about online environments. Instead, adults need to teach youth to use technology responsibly and regularly check in with them to ensure that they are doing so. We must also empower teens themselves to be a solution to the bullying problem by equipping them with tools that they can utilize should they experience or see it happening at school or online. Working together, teens and adults can be a formidable force to counter cruelty, no matter what it looks like or where it happens.
Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This fact sheet provides information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Connecting with Students Online: Issues to Consider When Educators “Friend” Students.
Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/FriendingStudentsonFacebook.pdf
Is it Ok for Educators to Connect with Students on Facebook?
Some of you may have seen that we posted a new fact sheet earlier in the week with information for educators and students to keep in mind when connecting via social media. This has been a topic of intense debate on this blog for years and we would love to hear your opinions. So, before we go any further, we have a quick poll for you to tell us how you feel about whether it is appropriate for educators to connect with students:
Now, take some time to look over our fact sheet and let us know what you think. Post your comments below about whether you think it is a good idea for educators to be connected with their students on social media or not. What are your concerns? How could it be valuable? Are you using social media in your schools to connect students with staff?
Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying
“Catfishing,” at least in the online world, refers to the practice of setting up a fictitious online profile, most often for the purpose of luring another into a fraudulent romantic relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines a “catfish” as: “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” So, to “catfish someone” is to set up a fake social media profile with the goal of duping that person into falling for the false persona. And if this has happened to you, you my friend have been “catfished.”
Of course people have been falsifying information online for decades and users have been putting fake information on social media profiles at least since MySpace launched in 2003, probably before. This became more widely known as catfishing after a 2010 documentary film highlighted the real-world ramifications of online relationships. In late 2012, MTV launched a reality TV show to capitalize on the interest in this activity.
A few weeks ago Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o became the poster child for catfishing when he was the apparent subject of one’s online angling. As a public figure, with a prominent social media footprint he was a prime target. Te’o developed an online relationship with someone he knew as Lennay Kekua. It is difficult to know how deep the relationship was, but he did refer to her as his “girlfriend” and mentioned repeatedly that he loved her.
Te’o amassed a wide following when it was learned that his grandmother and girlfriend (Kekua) died on the same day early in the 2012 football season. As a Michigan State football fan, I became interested in the Te’o story because his inspired performance during his first game after the deaths led to a crushing defeat of my beloved Green and White. Soon, it seemed, much of America was watching Te’o and the Fighting Irish.
While it has been confirmed that his grandmother did in fact die, his girlfriend did not. Media investigations revealed that she had never existed in the first place. In mid-January the sportsblog Deadspin broke the story that Kekua was a fictitious online persona created by a friend of Te’o's. From the information we currently know, it appears most likely that Te’o was an unsuspecting victim, though some question his innocence and suggest this was all just an elaborate publicity stunt. In a statement released to the media, Te’o has maintained that he was a target: “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.” Whether a victim or a co-conspirator, the Te’o tribulations have led to renewed interest in a form of cyberbullying that has been perpetrated against others for many years.
Catfishing as Cyberbullying
Misleading another on social media with the intent to cause harm is not new. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier began an online relationship with a boy she knew as Josh Evans. For almost a month, Megan corresponded with this boy exclusively online because he said he didn’t have a phone and was homeschooled. One day in October of that year, Megan received a message from Josh on her MySpace profile saying “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” This was followed by bulletins being posted through MySpace calling Megan “fat” and a “slut.” After seeing the messages, Megan became distraught and ran up into her room. A few minutes later, Megan’s mother Tina found her daughter hanging in her bedroom closet. Though she rushed her daughter to the hospital, Megan died the next day.
Six weeks after their daughter’s death, the Meier family learned that the boy with whom Megan had been corresponding never existed. Josh Evans (and his online profile) was created by Lori Drew, a neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends. She created the profile as a way to spy on what Megan was saying about her daughter. Drew was eventually acquitted in federal court for her role in Megan’s death.
Another, more extreme example, is the case of Anthony Stancl, a New Berlin, Wisconsin, 18-year-old who in 2009 impersonated two girls (“Kayla” and “Emily”) on Facebook. He befriended and formed online romantic relationships with a number of boys in his high school (again, while posing and interacting as these two girls). He then convinced at least 31 of those boys to send him nude pictures or videos of themselves. As if that weren’t bad enough, Stancl – still posing as a girl and still communicating through Facebook – tried to convince more than half to meet with a male friend and let him perform sexual acts on them. If they refused, “she” told them that the pictures and videos would be released for all to see. Seven boys actually submitted to this horrific request, and allowed Stancl to perform sex acts on them, or they performed sex acts on him. He took numerous pictures of these encounters with his cell phone, and the police eventually found over 300 nude images of male teens on his computer. He was charged with five counts of child enticement, two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child, two counts of third-degree sexual assault, possession of child pornography, and repeated sexual assault of the same child and received a 15-year sentence in prison in early 2010.
Anytime someone uses technology in a way that causes repeated harm to another, it can be classified as cyberbullying. Setting up a fake online profile and communicating with someone for the purpose of tricking them into developing a romantic relationship – only to break up with or otherwise harm them – is wrong. It also violates Facebook’s terms of service: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission” and “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.”
That said, some people use pseudonyms or alter-egos online to safeguard their identity. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for doing this and as long as your behaviors do not hurt others, or mislead them in a way that causes harm to them, this is probably just fine. It really comes down to intent: Are you masking your identity to protect yourself or to cause harm to others? It is one thing to be protective of your real identity for personal privacy reasons, but it is another thing entirely to create an alternative identity for the purpose of humiliating, harassing, or hurting someone else.
Some might argue that catfishing is harmless Internet fun and that people should know better than to enter into any significant relationship with another person they only know digitally. It is true that people need to take care not to put themselves into situations where they could fall for someone who doesn’t really exist. However, that does not make it OK to use technology to mislead someone, and leads to a “victim-blaming” mentality that gets us nowhere. To be sure, everyone needs to be skeptical and cautious when entering into online relationships. Those who do should consider using Skype, Facetime, or some other video-chatting service that will allow you to see and interact in real-time with the person you are communicating with. You should be suspicious if the other person continues to be hesitant about wanting you to see them in real life or online. Also, don’t give out too much personal information, especially early on, and never go by yourself to meet someone in person who you only know from online. Go with a friend – or better yet a group of friends. They can protect you if something turns out to be not what it seems.
It is easy to be blinded by feelings of affection, especially when someone is giving you more positive attention than you have ever gotten from anyone else before. Just remember to stop and think about the possibility that someone might be taking advantage of you and proceed with the utmost caution. As they say, if something (or in this case someone) seems too good to be true, it probably is.