We live in the app age. Got an idea? Make an app. The cost barrier is getting lower and lower thanks to the increase of investment by platforms such as Facebook. One reason of course platforms such as Facebook are jumping into this market is that it’s very lucrative. According to a 2013 study by Neilson, 70% of 13-17 year olds use smartphones. I imagine that that number is even higher now. Teens and their relationships to each other are now being directly impacted by the types of apps that are being created. And this is a situation at which we in the tech industry need to take a long hard look.
I realize that this statement directly collides with one of the fundamental tenants of the developer industry. If people use our creation in ways that it wasn’t intended to be used it’s not our fault. And yes. It would take a very lengthy and costly legal case to argue otherwise. But there’s a different between being legally right and morally right. This elephant in the room has been growing continually larger as teen use of smartphones increase and we see the rise of trends such as sexting.
But for me the last straw is the Burnbook App which directly enables cyberbullying. And, I don’t care what the founders state, it was not designed to be a fluffy social networking app for adults. Come on- why else would you name your app something that that appeared in a Disney movie about bullying in high school?
Here’s why this strikes such a chord with me. I was bullied horribly in middle school. It got so bad that I ended up switching schools to get away from it. That gave me a fresh start. To symbolize it I changed my name from Susanna to Suzie. But I always had a fear that somehow someone from my prior school would connect with someone in my current school. When I started high school I ran into someone from my prior school triggering a full on panic attack. Thankfully she let me keep my new identify and I was safe.
When I first heard of cyberbullying in the mid-2005s my blood ran cold. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I hadn’t been able to get away from the rumors by switching schools. And I guarantee given the malice that certain group of people had against me those rumors would have followed me. To be totally honest there’s a chance that I wouldn’t be sitting here typing out this blog post.
Bullying is absolutely no joke. I was let down by administrators in my middle school. A physical threat was made against me and when I reported it they told me that it was my fault and threatened to suspend me along with my bullies if it happened again. In a way I feel like the developers of apps like Burnbook are doing the same thing. They are putting the onus on the bullied to toughen up and somehow prevent what’s going on.
The problem is that you can’t prevent bullying. No matter what I did when I was being bullied I couldn’t get out of it. I tried to change what I wore, how I acted and ultimately I stopped talking all together. Nothing worked. It took my parents stepping in to protect me to finally make it end.
But I can’t help but feel that this is an app that shouldn’t have been created in the first place. We aren’t living in 2005. We’re living in the age of cyberbulling. There is no plausible deniability here. So I ask developers, as a personal plea, please take a moment and think through the potential consequences of your ideas. You have a gift- the ability to impact a huge proportion of teenagers through your apps. Why not use this to create something positive?