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.

Facebook for Educators, and the issues we need to consider

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on February 23, 2012

I have been chatting with my colleague Nancy Willard of the Center for Responsible Internet Use about Facebook in schools, and how they should and should not be used by educators. These are her recent thoughts with some of my input added…just to get some more discussion going on this issue. We both think that schools MUST shift to the use of interactive technology environments to effectively prepare students for success in their future. There are incredibly effective tools to do this, like EPals and EdModo. However, Facebook in its current instantiation may not be perfectly suited for certain uses by educators. For example, the use of Facebook for community outreach – by schools or extracurricular organizations – is perfectly appropriate. In addition, there may be times that it would be helpful and appropriate for students to access material on Facebook for instructional purposes. However, I would hesitate to recommend that Facebook be used as a platform for instructional activities based on its current limited feature set for schools and educators. The potential problems – including potential liability for schools – are significant.


These include:


– The privacy of student work products must be protected under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Having students publicly post their work on Facebook could very well violate this federal statute. (Justin and I recommend that schools and teachers set up Facebook Fan Pages which ensures that communications between the adults and students are public…but Facebook is testing the capability for Fans (students, in this case) to send private messages to the owner (adult educator, in this case) of the Fan page. See here for more information.)


– Schools would have to ensure that every adult has effectively set up the appropriate group protections to avoid the potential of liability.


– If a teacher has access to student Facebook profiles, these profiles could reveal evidence of abuse. If a teacher fails to detect and report such abuse, the teacher might be in violation of state mandatory reporting laws.


– Facebook requires individuals to be at least 13 years of age to sign up. Schools must adopt interactive platforms that can be used throughout their K-12 system.


– Students deserve privacy in their personal and social communications. Being required to use Facebook for their instructional activities disrespects this privacy for some. Also, some students and their parents might prefer not to have an account on Facebook.


– Facebook’s business model is focused on market profiling and advertising. Whether instructional environments should be engaged in these activities is definitely a controversial issue.


– Teachers and other school staff who want to friend students on Facebook are possibly setting themselves up for difficulties. School staff should certainly maintain friendly and supportive relationships with students. But do we want to *formally* encourage teachers to become students’ “friends?” Should they also go and hang out at the mall and go to movies with students? Or should they maintain a distinction in the status of their relationship? This, of course, is a polarizing debate with many strong opinions on one side or the other.


To summarize, these are some of the difficulties associated with teacher friending of students:


– The aforementioned mandatory reporting requirement


– Activities in an environment that is fundamentally built for sharing personal information, thoughts, experiences, photos, and videos (as compared to other social networking platforms like LinkedIn)


– Perceived pressure on students to allow teachers to have (at least some) access to their personal social environment, which may violate their privacy


– Perceived grading bias if some students establish deeper or stronger “connections” or friendships than others


– Possible expectation that busy teachers take on some of the responsibility of monitoring and intervening in student-student personal relationships when they are out of school


I really want to hear your thoughts on this…again, keeping in mind the caveats I have stated. I am not suggesting we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Facebook is great and has numerous benefits and incredible potential. I just don’t think it is where it needs to be yet in terms of providing what schools and educators need to deliver education and provide connections in a perfectly appropriate way.


Here are some sample policies that may help you within your school or district as you seek to establish or revise your current formal rules.


Facebook has also contracted with a third-party to create a Guide for Educators, and it is available here.


Chime in and let’s talk this out!

The Changing Nature of Adolescent MySpace Use: 2006 to 2009

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 15, 2010

Sameer and I are just putting the finishing touches on a paper that examines the social networking behaviors of adolescents who are on MySpace.  For the past five years, we have annually taken random samples of MySpace profiles and analyzed them for content to ascertain any changes in adolescent participation and information sharing on the site.  We have published two papers reporting results from this research, and are poised to submit another to an academic outlet in the next week or so.

Because it takes SOOO long for academic research to make it into print, we have decided to post some preliminary results here.  This most recent paper compares a random sample of over 9200 profiles reviewed in 2006 with a random sample of around the same number reviewed in late 2009 – three years of dramatic changes in the landscape of online social networking.  Most of what this research has uncovered is not altogether surprising; it basically supports what most who follow adolescent use of these interactive platforms already know.

First and foremost, teens (and many others) are simply abandoning MySpace.   In 2006, 6.4% of the profiles sampled had been abandoned or deleted.  In 2009, that number was 35.5%.  In 2006, over 40% of the profiles were ‘active’ – meaning accessed within the previous 7 days.  In 2009, that number dropped to about 18%.  Finally, about 60% of the teen profiles sampled had not been logged onto in over a year.  In our opinion, this trend is unfortunate because MySpace has been an industry leader in promoting safety and responsibility on its site—contrary to the opinion of many parents and most state attorneys general.

When looking at adolescent participation on MySpace in more detail, the initial findings are telling.  Significantly more teens now set their profile to private (39% in 2006; 82% in 2009).  Briefly, significantly fewer teens now have public profiles which: 1) reveal pictures of friends in their swimsuit or underwear; 2) contain swear words; 3) include evidence of participation in adult-oriented behaviors such as tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana use; or, 4) report information about which school they attend.  In general, the results suggest that teens are being increasingly more selective and discrete about what they share and with whom they share it (at least on MySpace).

If you would like more information about this research, feel free to drop us a line and we would be happy to answer any questions you have.  Stay tuned to this blog as we will post the final paper when it is ready for distribution.  The earlier papers from this study, which appear in the Journal of Adolescence and the most recent issue of New Media and Society, are available.  If you have any trouble finding them, just email us and we can send a copy your way.

Coming soon – Facebook Privacy and Security Upgrades!

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on December 2, 2009

If you’ve logged into Facebook over the last few hours, you may have noticed an open letter from its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.  The letter discusses forthcoming improvements to better safeguard the experience and participation of users on the site.  We at the Cyberbullying Research Center highly approve of these changes, and believe they will assist in reducing online harassment and youth vulnerability to victimization.

While they will be discussed in greater detail after the rollout, Zuckerberg indicated that regional networks will be eliminated, since many networks have thousands and millions of members and therefore allow more openness and visibility in profiles than may be preferred by some users.  Secondly, they will be consolidating all of the privacy and security settings into a few (or maybe even one?) page.  Currently, they are scattered across numerous screens, and I would say it takes users a solid 15-20 minutes to go through each screen and completely lock down their profile to their preferences. Finally, Facebook will allow us to control who out there sees any and every single individual piece of content (note, picture, video, etc.) you upload or create.  This is fantastic, and has been heavily requested for months now.

Facebook has impressed me with the granular level of control it has historically allowed individuals, and this feature will take social networking security to the next level.  Presumably, their privacy initiatives and mechanisms will also serve as a model for other Web 2.0 sites to emulate.


Posted by Justin W. Patchin on November 23, 2009

An interesting controversy has emerged in the last couple of weeks over the word “meep.”  What does meep even mean?  Frankly, it doesn’t really matter.  In fact there are numerous and varied definitions of, and uses for, the word meep.  The most frequent use among adolescents, it seems, is to replace an inappropriate word with meep, as in “What the meep!?!”

So the recent controversy emerged when students at Danvers High School in Massachusetts threatened to disrupt the school environment by muttering, yelling, and collectively spewing the word meep during class time.  Danvers Principal Thomas Murray was tipped off about the planned disruption and preemptively threatened to suspend students who spoke the word or showed up to school with the word printed on clothing.  This, of course, incited folks from around the country to contact Mr. Murray to express their dissatisfaction with this seemingly ludicrous policy.  To be sure, the courts have ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  That said, school officials do have the right to restrict speech and/or discipline students for speech or behavior that results in (or has a high likelihood of resulting in) a substantial and material disruption of the learning environment.  In this case, I think it is clear that the students involved were in fact planning a substantial disruption.  So, it doesn’t matter that the speech involved wasn’t really even a real word.

When I was in middle school, my classmates and I started humming in English class.  The teacher was getting pretty upset by this and was walking around the classroom trying to identify the offending party.  When he went to one side of the classroom, students in the other side would start humming.  When he moved to the other side, the other students stepped up and continued the humming.  Clearly, the act of humming is not obscene or otherwise generally subject to discipline in any environment outside of the school.  But at school, if it causes or threatens to cause a substantial disruption, it can (and should be) stopped.  In our case, the teacher refused to administer our planned quiz until the humming stopped.  It didn’t, so we all failed the quiz.  To this day I have a hard time identifying prepositions!

This is an important case because as much as I agree with everyone that restricting the use of a nonsensical word is in itself nonsensical, it is necessary that school administrators have the ability to maintain an appropriate, civil, and safe learning environment at school.  Educators need the support of parents and other community members when they take actions to ensure an appropriate school climate.  This is especially true since many forms of relational aggression, including cyberbullying, are often more subtle and therefore may not be automatically identifiable as something warranting intervention.   At the same time, they also need to be held accountable when their policies or practices cross the line of being overly restrictive.  In the case of meep, from what I have seen, I think they were being reasonable in their efforts to prevent a disruption from occurring.  What do you think?  Is Principal Murray going too far with this?