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Do you know the new way students are bullying, making threats?

With the constant presence of cellphones in teenagers' lives comes the potential danger of cyberbullying, especially through anonymous apps.
With the constant presence of cellphones in teenagers' lives comes the potential danger of cyberbullying, especially through anonymous apps. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

As we all get more digitally connected, phone and computer apps have quickly become a reality for both students and educators.

And like any new technology, its usefulness can be viewed positively or negatively, depending on who you talk to.

While apps can provide students and parents important, timely information, they can also make it easier to post threatening or bullying messages.

Legitimate concerns are being brought forward by the community over their usage — and not all of it is from a position of authority.

Anonymous posts

Last month, a post on the After School app alarmed some Hancock High School students. It read “don’t come to school tomorrow” with two pistol emojis, suggesting the possibility of an incident involving guns. Emoji are symbols that can be sent in a text or online message that come in various genres, including facial expressions, animals and objects.

After School is an anonymous app, so the student who posted the threat was not immediately identified. Several students reported the threatening post to school officials, who in turn, called the sheriff’s department. As a precaution, the department sent in the SWAT team to clear the school.

South Mississippi isn’t the first area to receive threatening messages through apps. In fact, a quick Google search bring ups news stories of bomb threats, or cases of racist or sexually-explicit content posted in apps.

Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Don Bass said school officials and law enforcement are working together to determine the safest and most efficient use of the technology, and what their response should be.

“It takes communication between us and the school district,” he said. “When there’s something like this, a threatening message, the parents find out and they want to get to the bottom of it as well,” he said. “But it’s basically old-fashioned police work to determine who’s behind it,” he said.

You take the good with the bad. There’s always the possibility a student will use one of these anonymous apps for the wrong reason.

Ocean Springs Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter

Cyberbullying common

Nikki Herring has two daughters in the Biloxi School District. She said her oldest, Samantha Woodward, has already dealt with bullying at the high school. She’ll graduate this year, but Herring fears for her 13-year-old daughter. Many of the new apps on the market, some which market themselves on their ability to keep the poster secret, concern her.

The school district once had a no phone-policy, but that changed a couple years ago.

Students can bring phones to school, but there are penalties for disrupting class.

The district has a school official monitor the apps as a precaution, but due to their anonymous nature, that can be an impossible task. Students find ways to communicate nonetheless.

Herring said she has taken measures to monitor her daughter’s app usage, but bullying can also come in the form of texts and messages.

Samantha Woodward said students can be much more adept than parents give them credit for at beating preventive restrictions put on their phone or computers.

Out of about 350 seniors at Biloxi High School, she estimates about 150 of them use the After School or Yik Yak apps. They’re easy to download and use.

Depending on where you live, a list of nearby schools will pop onto the screen. It attempts to verify the user based on their Facebook profile and friends. Yik Yak requires a cellphone number in order to register. If it can’t, there are still ways to get access. More than 22,300 schools are on After School service, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.

And the truth is that mobile apps and messages allow cyberbullying to happen anywhere.

While familiar with the most popular student-based apps, Samatha said she can’t find much good to say about them.

“Almost all of it is negative. It’s teenagers making fun of people or talking about the latest rumors. It’s a way a way to say something negative about another person without getting caught.”

Other messages can contain threats or are meant as warnings, she said.

“If Bobby talks to my girlfriend, this or that is going to happen to them,” she said as an example.

“If it was something good, it wouldn’t need to be anonymous.”

The emotional trauma of bullying can be so severe, some have committed suicide.

The Biloxi School District held a weeklong series of events last week, much of it devoted to anti-bullying.

Herring said that, from her experience, she’s not impressed with the district’s capability to prevent bullying. The anonymous apps simply make it too easy, she said.

“I contacted the school district several times about my daughter and bullying. They kept saying there was nothing they could do, or that they had dealt with the issue according to their policies,” Herring said.

Schools in the app market, too

Ocean Springs School District Superintendent Coleman-Potter has taken the district’s communication role in her own hands, since there’s no designated position in the district for it.

“You take the good with the bad. There’s always the possibility a student will use one of these anonymous apps for the wrong reason,” she said.

“In that case, we try and build a close relationship with our student government. There has to be a trust there. If a student is alerted to a threatening post, they need to feel like they can trust us, that we’ll keep them anonymous.

“It’s worked well in our district,” she said.

The Ocean Springs district has had its own app for awhile now. It didn’t get used as much as they’d hoped, so Coleman-Potter now prefers using a variety of social media platforms instead.

In an era of rapidly evolving technology, age is a good way to determine what app or social media platform is used most, she said.

“I’ve tried them all,” she said. “For people over 40, for many of the parents or some of the staff, I’ve found that Facebook works the best as a constant form of communication,” she said.

“Then we have multiple Twitter accounts for all the schools. We’ll use Instagram also.”

In the case of emergency communication, the school district uses a ConnectEd app that sends text messages and emails. It’s used sparingly, she said.

“I’ve found that people will tune out if you post every little thing. You have to be careful. We’ll use ConnectED just for emergency alerts like weather,” she said.

Recently, the Jackson County School District announced an application of their own last week.

The app gives district information to students and notifies them of important, timely information, Jackson County School District Superintendent Barry Amacker said. Each individual school in the district can be accessed through the app, he said.

One of the app features is called a “geofence.” Once a user sets a location in their phones, they’re notified when they get within a certain distance of the location.

Amacker used Friday night’s football game as an example.

“As soon as people started arriving to the ballgame, they got a message welcoming them to the game and letting them know parking is available. Ya know, we can send that kind of information out there, like hot dogs are on sale or anything like that,” he said.

So far, Amacker is the sole administrator. He intends to have his school principals participate in the future.

He said he looks back at Hurricane Katrina, and sees where the app could really be effective.

“When you have a situation that large, communication is important. Anyway we can get in touch with anyone,” he said.

Despite the anonymous aspect of some apps, Coleman-Potter takes a broader view.

“It’s something I know myself and other school districts take seriously. It’s an opportunity really to be better connected with one another. They can be misused. One thing to realize is that these apps are constantly evolving. We hope for the best,” she said.

5 Apps Parents Should Watch

It is recommended parents keep up with social media trends to help monitor their children’s activity.

Parents who think they’re savvy because they are aware of Facebook Messenger and Snapchat may be surprised at how many apps vie for their children’s attention.

Some apps such can be disguise as other app icons such as the appropriately-named “Poof” app.

Apps designed for users 17 and older can be bypassed, then downloaded by simply stating the user is 17 or older.

The rapidly evolving nature of apps makes it difficult for parents to keep up. It requires constant research and monitoring.

There are several customized parental-control systems. Parents might want to check out Net Nanny, which offers a family bundle meant to protect up to 15 devices from pornography, online predators and cyberbullying. There’s also McAfee Safe Eyes and Web Watcher.

Here are a few apps parents should watch:

  • YikYak: This social media platform doesn’t gather any personal information other than location. It allows users to post about regional happenings or like posts to move them up or down the viewing wall. The user posts comments that are accessible to the nearest 500 people, within a one- to five-mile radius.
  • Ask.fm: This anonymous app lets people pose questions to friends and strangers and has been linked to cyberbullying and suicides. It has little moderating and regulation of content and is considered dangerous.
  • Whisper: The free app encourages users to share secrets and post pictures anonymously.
  • Snapchat: This one has been around awhile. Rated 13+, it allows users to send video and picture messages that disappear after 10 seconds. Because they disappear, teens feel safer about sharing sexually explicit content, but the phone does store the data and allows the receiver to take screenshots that can be saved.
  • Tinder: This app is rated 17+ but has users as young as 13. It’s known as an app used for hooking up because it pulls matches from within a certain mile radius. It shows pictures of people who are nearby. The user marks each photo with a green heart or red X. If two users mark each other’s photos with the heart, it reveals their locations.

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