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Do Anonymous Apps Enable Cyberbullying?

One activist says they have a long way to go

Do apps like Whisper, Secret and Ask.fm, which let their users mask their identity, give voice to cyberbullying and other bad behavior? Mike Dreiblatt, president of the activist group Stand Up to Bullying and co-author of How to Stop Bullying and Social Aggression, says that such apps tend to bring out the worst in young people, and has some advice for the apps as well as parents.

Mike Dreiblatt is president of the activist group Stand Up to Bullying and co-author of How to Stop Bullying and Social Aggression.

How pervasive is cyberbullying?
Twenty-five percent of students surveyed by the Cyberbullying Research Center said that they were cyberbullied at some point in their life; 87 percent of young people have reported seeing cyberbullying in their lifetime.

What's your opinion of anonymous apps? Do they facilitate bullying?
My work with students indicates that anonymous apps tend to bring out the worst in people. For some students, their middle school and high school years are a time of very strong emotions. Some students use anonymous apps to strike at someone virtually that they can’t strike at in real life. Sometimes, teenagers lash out anonymously because they think the other person started it. Some cyberbullying is inadvertent. They think they’ve made a joke. They think it’s funny, and friends egg them on. Later they can’t believe what they said.

What precautions should parents take to safeguard kids online?
Before your child even has a cellphone, talk to them—when they’re 3-, 4-, 5-years-old—about what we do online. Like you’d prepare them for crossing the street, prepare them for the digital highway. Discuss Internet and cellphone etiquette. Post rules next to the computer, which should be in a common area, such as the living room. Talk to your child about cyberbullying and its various incarnations. Teach children never to meet an online friend offline unless you are with them. Teach them what information they can share with others online and what they can’t, such as telephone numbers, addresses, their full name and school. Remind children that they should not send any information that they don’t want the general public to see. Use parental control software on all electronic devices.

What should you do if your kids are bullied?
Tell them not every cyberbully needs a response. If they receive a message or picture [that’s inappropriate], try to ignore it. Sometimes, bullies are just trying to get a rise. If it persists, try to get documentation. Try to get screenshots, especially if it’s something like Snapchat [where communications quickly vanish]. If it gets to the point where it’s really hurtful or sexual, or goes on a long time, parents should tell kids that they need to put their devices down. Just don’t look. Don’t check. Getting school personnel involved may be useful if the cyberbullying happens at school or is having an impact on the student’s ability to learn.

What if your kid is the bully?
Kids try on different personalities. A child might try out cyberbullying behavior. You need to tell them, “That’s not how we act in this family, and we mean it.” You almost have to have a family intervention. Tell them, “We’re going to monitor you,” and add software so you can do it. It’s important that this is not just yelling at a child, but talking to them and following up.

Secret just instituted new measures to combat bullying. What should app makers do to ensure kids' safety?
At times it feels like it is taking too long, but anonymous apps are getting better at following common sense policies and procedures that limit bullying and ensure kids’ safety. That said, anonymous apps still have a long way to go.

Could controversies over bullying scare off investors and advertisers?
Unfortunately, unless there is a long and sustained public outcry, I think investors and advertisers will participate in anonymous apps if they think it is financially advantageous.

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