- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

BURLEY, Idaho (AP) - An app that gives teens a platform to post anonymous messages tied to their schools has singled out students, angered parents and raised suicide concerns in south-central Idaho.

Teens have always looked for ways to express their thoughts and feelings. But widespread use of the After School app has left a vicious mark of bullying in its wake - along with sex-related posts that include the names of students and educators.

Jayleen Lovell, a senior at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls, felt the sting of bullying comments posted on the app.

“One post about me said all Jayleen has going for her is her looks,” Lovell said. Another post said the teen “needs to stop opening her legs.”

Lovell shook off the comments and didn’t let them bother her, she said. “But other kids may not be able to do that.”

Posts on After School message boards tied to other south-central Idaho schools have included nude photos of students, derogatory comments about appearance, name calling and comments about students’ body parts.

One post said a particular male student “was big downstairs” and showed a weatherman standing next to a map with wind patterns in the shape of male genitalia. A male student posted about how he secretly filmed his sister and worried that he was guilty of child pornography.

Others mention how the poster would like to perform specific sex acts on a classmate; the sexual comments sometimes refer to teachers and principals, too.

Many vulgar posts do not include actual photos of students but use provocative stock images of scantily clad males and females.

Lovell said one girl at Canyon Ridge became so upset by After School posts about her that “she was crying and puking.” To compound her pain, “some boys at lunch handed her a rope and told her to go hang herself.”

Other apps target teen and preteen users, too, but After School is a particularly dangerous one.

‘A Reason to Be Naughty’

What’s different about this app?

Created by Cory Levy and Michael Callahan, the After School app is made for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch and is available to download free on iTunes - but not for parents or any other adult.

Parents who try to download the app will find it requires student verification in the form of a student identification card or driver’s license.

The app logs in the student through his or her Facebook account, which makes deleting it more difficult.

Students 17 and older can enter sections reserved for upperclassmen that allow profanity and talk about sex and drugs, but those kinds of comments are not limited to the restricted section.

In one case, a topless photo of a female student was posted on the app’s Burley High School message board. Students regularly make slightly suggestive to pornographic posts in the section designed for younger students; the difference is that some banned words are substituted with easily recognized symbols.

“The majority of it is bullying,” said Braeden Hill, a senior at Minico High School in Rupert. Hill said he deleted the app after realizing most of the posts were inappropriate.

Contacted by the Times-News, the company failed to respond to a list of questions and instead emailed a blurb describing its app. The company’s website says it takes measures to monitor each post and will remove posts if they are reported and block users who misuse the app. The website also says the company has responded to complaints by school districts and parents across the county by making modifications like the 17+ age restriction for sex and drug talk and by adding a button where users can report offensive content. The company also has added a help line for at-risk teens.

But its claims have done little to quell the daily bullying - and the sexually explicit posts that many parents would find shocking.

“When kids hear the word anonymous they think it’s a reason to be naughty,” said Rachel Jensen, school counselor at Raft River High School in Malta. “And they think it can’t be traced.”

Although some students have downloaded the app at Raft River High, Jensen said it is not widely used right now.

Jacob Hall, a senior at Minico High, said most of the students at his school using the app now are younger.

“A lot of the upperclassmen realized it was not good,” he said. “It’s a stupid and pointless way to bash on other people.”

Hill and Hall are both members of Minico High’s Source of Strength program, which trained about 60 students to reach out to others in a positive way. The program was available through a grant by Idaho Lives, which targets suicide prevention.

Students at junior high schools and even middle schools in south-central Idaho have school message boards available through the app.

Minico High counselor John Kontos’ advice to students: “Don’t download it or even look at it.”

“We’ve had kids extremely upset about the derogatory things that are being said,” Kontos said. “In our experience, nothing positive has happened with this app.”

Cyberbullying can be especially devastating to a student who may be at risk for suicide, he said. “Stuff like this can push kids over the edge.”

‘We Can’t Control It’

Do you know what your kids are looking at?

Few parents seem to pay any attention to what their children have on their phones, Kontos said. “If they were, all this sexting wouldn’t be happening.”

Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages or nude photos over a cellphone.

In the past couple of months, the Twin Falls School District has had complaints about bullying on the After School app at all three of its high schools, district spokeswoman Eva Craner said.

The district policy requires students to use the district’s network during school hours, which has a filter that blocks the app. School districts in Cassia and Minidoka counties use filters to block the app, too.

“The loophole is if they don’t use the school network and switch to data, we can’t control it,” Craner said.

Craner said the district contacted the After School staff to complain and was told the company would “keep a close eye on the district and add extra moderators to monitor posts.”

Cyberbullying is a widespread phenomenon that the district would like to control, Craner said. “It’s easy to say something mean when it’s anonymous like that.”

Cassia County School District has also received complaints.

“It’s horrifying,” spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said. She said the Cassia district also complained to the app’s makers, but “they are in denial.”

The app was designed for students to make fun comments like “I have a crush on Billy,” Critchfield said, but that’s not how it’s being used. She said some After School activity goes beyond inappropriate; it crosses the line into illegal.

Cassia County Sheriff Jay Heward has logged into the After School app at Burley High and concluded about half of the student body was using it.

If posts include nudity of a minor, even if the minor in the photo posts it, Heward said, it is a crime. Those posts can be traced.

Teens often think they are sending nude photos to a boyfriend or girlfriend but don’t realize they may be forwarded to others or posted online. They don’t understand that once nude photos are put on social medial they are on the Internet - and out there forever.

“They can never get them back,” Heward said.

In the case of the After School app, schools can do only so much because it is downloaded onto the student’s private property. The buck stops with parents, and they must monitor what their children are putting on their phones.

“Love your kids, check their phones,” he said.

‘Stay on Top of Things as Parents’

Heidi Cranney, a Cassia County parent and a former high school teacher, is concerned about the app’s widespread use.

“It’s hard for teens to filter through all the things that they are targeted by,” said Cranney, who downloaded the app, tried to log in and managed to reach a point that she could see posts briefly before they faded away. “I was really taken aback and upset by some of the posts.”

Even parents who regularly monitor their child’s cellphone may miss the app, which can be hidden under shell apps that look like objects such as calculators. There are also restriction settings on iPhones that allow the user to hide apps from a parent’s view.

Critchfield said the topless student photo was discovered by a parent who opened the app on a child’s phone and recognized the girl.

Parents are morally and legally responsible for their children until they are 18, Critchfield said. “Look at what’s on your child’s phone. You are paying for it, and they are minors.”

Often a bullied child may be embarrassed and reluctant to talk with a parent.

Critchfield’s advice to parents: If you find the app, encourage the user to delete it. If a student had negative experiences with it, he or she should talk with a trusted adult or counselor.

It’s not a bad rule to have all electronic devices on the countertops at night to make sure students are not staying up all night on them, Jensen said. “Get those devices out of the kids’ rooms at night so they can sleep.”

The After School app is advertised to teens as a fun way to talk about good things. But there could be sinister long-term consequences.

The app asks to scan students’ driver’s license bar codes in order to admit them to the over-17 message board.

“By doing that you give the app all of your information on your license, including how old you are, where you live, your height,” Lovell said. “That is unusual and inappropriate. Who is keeping track of all these students’ personal information?”

Parents have to educate their teens about the risks that come with putting personal information on social media and letting apps have access to it. It may affect their lives down the road, Cranney said. No electronic messages are truly anonymous.

“When kids get older and they apply for jobs, anything that they are putting on social media may be viewed by a potential employer,” she said. “A lot of employers pay good money to access that kind of information. It will follow you.”

Parents should also put parental control filters on their children’s phones.

“I get pretty angry that we as parents have to fight this battle,” Cranney said. “But we need to share what we know and pass it along to others so they can stay on top of things as parents.”


Information from: The Times-News, https://www.magicvalley.com

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

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