Mobile Apps Empower Victims, Embolden Bullies

Posted May 30th, 2014 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

The last two blog entries looked at cyberbullying and the dynamics that drive a bully to taunt a victim, sometimes to the brink of depression or suicide. Often, bullies exploit the same technologies their targets use for protection. But technology can provide tools that give kids, their parents and advocates an advantage in the battle against bullies.

Yik Yak, a local bulletin board that allows anyone to connect and share information with others anonymously, discovered in early March that middle school and high school students were using the mobile app inappropriately, in some cases to bully others – a practice co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington say Yik Yak does not condone.

Image courtesy of Yik Yak shows the message users see when trying to access the app from an area Yik Yak has geo-fenced.

Image courtesy of Yik Yak shows the message users see when trying to access the app from an area Yik Yak has geo-fenced.

“Since cyber-bullying does not align with Yik Yak’s mission of building beneficial social communities, we took the proactive measure of geo-fencing [i.e., a software feature that uses GPS or radio frequency to block users’ access] the app on 85 percent of middle school and high school campuses in the U.S.,” Droll and Brooks told TECHtonics in an email interview.

Droll and Brooks say they are working to “geo-fence additional middle schools and high schools, as well as continuing to coordinate with school administrators to block use of Yik Yak on these campuses.”

And they encourage parents or school administrators who see the app being used maliciously to go to Yik Yak’s website to request that a particular school be geo-fenced.

Users have to be 17 years of age or older to use Yik Yak; and parents can block the app on their children’s phones if necessary. Yik Yak also monitors conversations and posts.

Any “negative or harmful behavior will result in the respective user being blocked, or altogether banned from future use,” said Droll and Buffington.

They said they want to encourage positive interaction to ensure that users build “respectful and beneficial social communities” and develop “sincere and responsive dialogue between parents, app creators and the younger generations.”

In one instance, a Vanderbilt University student brought together students on campus, “many of whom he didn’t know, to raise money for his ailing brother using Yik Yak,” said Droll and Buffington.

But Droll and Buffington acknowledge that mobile apps that seek to curb cyber-bullying, despite their potential, continue to face challenges.

Mobile devices have become the number one harassment tool, according to STOPit cybersecurity expert, Detective Sergeant Thomas Rich.

A screenshot courtesy of STOPit shows the mobile app's interface.

A screenshot courtesy of STOPit shows the mobile app’s interface.

STOPit, an app and a school program that enables users to report cyberbullying and cyberbrutality, “offers protection for kids, peace of mind for parents and a proven deterrent for schools,” said Rich in an email interview. “It gives kids an outlet for getting help and, in the instances where cyberbullying escalates to the police, it provides real-time evidence to officers on the case.”

The app comes in two versions: for individuals and student bodies. It includes inspirational and informative posters, cybersafe rallies and resources such as 24/7 phone or text access to a crisis center.

Rich says STOPit allows schools districts to achieve an 83% reduction in harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) reports. The goal, he says, is to “stop this malicious trend by making it easy, cool and safe for victims and witnesses of cyberbullying to get help for those who need it.”

ButRich stresses the importance of long-term education and says that STOPit will be focusing on this with “a K-12 curriculum and support for school administrators to facilitate digital citizenship.”

There are numerous other apps intended to help cyberbullying victims. Some give parents controls to limit online use, monitor their kids’ activities or block their access to undesirable websites.

But the bottom line, says psychologist and bullying prevention expert Joel Haber, is that “parents need to engage their kids at an early age to teach them good cyber behavior instead of monitoring their every move.”

“They need to trust their kids not to abuse the freedom they have been given and to hold them accountable if they do,” he said.

Taking this a step further, Yik Yak’s co-founders say an open dialogue between parents, app creators and the younger generations will help educate younger generations on the responsible use of social media while empowering parents to voice their concerns and learn about existing, “ultimately enabling app developers to react to parental concerns in a timely and effective manner.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *