Cyberbullying-inspired Android app examined

TEMP ORARY October 22, 2011 0

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This schoolyard chant may be even less true now than when it originated. With today’s multiple outlets for technology, bullying others through use of harsh words has become easier than ever.

Though anonymous, students can easily bully others via text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging, to name a few. Without having to address the victim face to face, the bully often never has to deal with negative consequences or feel the guilt creep in as they watch their victim’s emotional reaction. Through a website called Formspring, individuals are able to post messages to others’ walls without leaving their personal information on the page. The complete anonymity allows individuals to write truly horrible things about others, and the victim can’t even trace the harmful message back to the sender.

This new-age form of bullying, called cyberbullying, is creating quite a stir and over the past few years has attracted plenty of media attention. After some students were bullied so badly that they felt they had no choice but to drop out of school, switch school districts or in some heartbreaking situations, take their own lives, multiple media outlets have sponsored programs to raise awareness about the toll that cyberbullying takes on its victims.

Popular television networks, such as ABC Family and MTV have made movies, entitled “Cyberbully” and “DISconnected,” respectively, and awareness campaigns such as ‘[delete] digital drama’ and ‘It Gets Better” have sprung up to fight the prevalence of such bullying.

There’s no doubt that cyber bullying is turning into an epidemic and needs to be addressed, but how far is too far in trying to prevent it? A new application for Android phones called “Word Bully” may be where we should draw the line.

Word Bully, according to its website, is an application that parents can install on their children’s smartphones. The app screens incoming and outgoing text messages from the child’s phone, and any time that profanity, vulgarity or threats are recognized, a copy of the text message is sent directly to the parent’s phone.

This is not the app’s only function however. Parents can also enable the Trick or Tracker, which sends the child’s whereabouts to the parent.
What if the text message contains wording that could be perceived as a threat but is really just two friends or siblings trash talking each other? Well, the makers of Word Bully built in a way for the parent or guardian to input ‘safe numbers’. These numbers can text the child’s phone and the messages will no longer be screened.

In its most basic use, this application could be very good for young children to help protect them. The website advertises this app as being good for teens, college students and the elderly; this is where it goes too far.

As children grow up, it is important for them to gain independence from their parents and learn how to fight their own battles. Should a student be bullied by his peers, there is no reason why a parent needs to screen text messages for them. A high school or college-aged student should be able to handle the situation and if he or she feels comfortable, can let the parent know what is going on.

Another feature that the app contains is the ability for parents to enter the number of a known bully and have those text messages sent directly to the parent’s phone for screening. Should the message contain anything inappropriate, the parent can choose not to forward the message to their child’s phone and the child will never receive the message or even know that it was sent.

Now we all want to protect the ones we love, but at what cost? If a parent continuously steps in and prevents their child from ever dealing with negative remarks, how will the child learn to develop their own defense mechanisms? The parent will not be able to go to school or work with the child and interrupt negative face-to-face contacts, and essentially, by never giving their child a chance to develop coping skills, are leaving them defenseless.

While well-intentioned, this application possesses more negative aspects than positive ones. Cyber-bullying is a real and serious problem many students will face over their lifetime. It is important to raise awareness and to prevent bullying whenever possible, but smartphone applications like Word Bully TM are not the best solution.

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