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 misbehaviours 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 free and 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.]
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 cyberbullying 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 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. Easy Calc Camera app bills itself as a camera to “record video, audio or take pictures without being noticed.” 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 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 pro-social 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.