04/25/2013 06:07 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Anti-bullying apps will fail unless society takes action, critics say

Schools are resorting to anti-bullying apps to try to curb online harassment, as high-profile cases continue to expose a harrowing world of practically nonstop cyberbullying. But critics say these apps have limitations and don't address the toxic peer culture underlying the problem.

One Ontario school board in the midst of an anti-bullying app pilot project says its participating schools love the high-tech reporting tool.

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"There have been a few serious situations in which we have been able to be proactive," said Pam Reinholdt, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's superintendent of student achievement. "Even if it's only two or three, we're very thankful for that."

Starting late February, six schools adopted inTouch's TipOff app, which provides students who have smartphones with a two-way, anonymous texting service to report bullying. A triage centre compiles incoming reports. Individual schools then investigate and address the complaints.

Success hinges on student tips, and one of the issues with these types of apps is that victims and bystanders alike generally hesitate to report bullying.

Kids Help Phone surveys repeatedly find most kids won't confide in adults. In its latest survey, it found 65 per cent of kids would talk to a friend rather than an adult about a problem, while 15 per cent would remain silent and not tell anyone about it.

Commonly, research points to adolescent fears of social retaliation for snitching, concern that parents will limit technology privileges if they hear about online problems, and a belief that parents, school officials and police cannot help even if they are made aware of an issue.

One of TipOff's creators thinks the app overcomes these issues. The main reason kids stay mum about bullying is that "we've missed the mark in venues for reporting," says Brent McDonald.

He points out that TipOff's text-based service is designed to appeal to the "digital-native" populations of high schools, who rely on texting as a primary means of communication.

The approach does seem to be getting results. Prior to TipOff, bullying was spottily reported at the Hamilton-Wentworth board's schools. Now, students submit about a dozen reports weekly — about half are cyberbullying complaints.

"That's more than we would normally get from those schools," said Reinholdt, adding that false reports from students who were merely testing the system petered out after the first week.

The perils of anonymity

To make students even more willing to use the app, TippOff's developers added an anonymity feature. The app scrambles the phone numbers of incoming texts.

In a statement, the Ontario Student Trustees' Association, a student-run body, described TipOff's anonymous texting feature as "a success."

But while anonymous texting may help encourage students to report peer-on-peer crime, education lawyer Eric Roher, who advises a number of school boards, says it is very difficult to investigate anonymous complaints.

"We do need a complainant," he said. "We just can't investigate things in a vacuum."

Anonymous complaints can only generate a preliminary investigation, he said. Without a source, evidence is hard to come by and the perpetrator will often go unpunished.

Reinholdt denies that this is the case. Teachers will investigate reports thoroughly by speaking with students named in the complaint, she says, and any others they suspect are involved.

For the most part, she adds, students are very helpful when approached for information.

New technology, new alibis

Still, even if an anonymous source's identity is discovered, Roher says proving guilt — from a school or legal perspective — is incredibly difficult.

Teens have tech-savvy alibis at hand when confronted with cyberbullying evidence. For example:

- Harassing messages sent to a peer from their phone or computer? Another student must have sent those when borrowing the device in question.

- Mean-spirited comments coming from a Facebook or Twitter profile with their name and photo? Someone must have created a fake profile in their name to get away with bullying others.

Phantom-profile bullying is "extremely common and really problematic," says Roher, because school staff can't tell who is creating the images without conducting an in-depth investigation.

But when presented with complex or criminal cases, Reinholdt says schools do collaborate with the police, who are better equipped to investigate.

Schools, police share jurisdiction

Another part of the solution is simply to promote awareness of the consequences of cyberbullying.

Often, kids are shocked to learn their off-school conduct can result in school intervention, says Roher, describing a recent cyberbullying incident. An unnamed 14-year-old girl engaged in consensual oral sex with multiple partners at a weekend party. The next day, a boy posted her photo to Facebook with a callous note explaining her party antics. Several hours later, hundreds of negative comments appeared under the photo. While the boy did contact Facebook to have the image deleted, the ordeal affected the girl's reputation at school.

"[If] there is a link or nexus to the school, and it impacts the school climate, then the educators can take action in terms of student discipline," he said.

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School punishments can range from a verbal warning to expulsion, depending on the severity of the bullying.

Police can also press criminal charges, such as in the highly publicized Steubenville, Ohio, rape case where two teen football players were found guilty of raping a 15-year-old girl after evidence surfaced online. Following the court's verdict, police charged two teen girls with threatening the victim online.

Band-Aid solutions

Shaheen Shariff, director of Define the Line, conducts cyberbullying research and runs outreach initiatives teaching students and staff about the problem and how to deal with it.

She worries about school's reactive responses to bullying, and says anti-bullying apps won't solve much unless someone acts on the information they gather.

"If the schools don't know how to deal with [these reports]," said Shariff, "then we're no further ahead."

Suspending or expelling so-called problem students after the fact is not helpful, she says. Instead, schools need to change student culture by encouraging kids to brainstorm and implement solutions to stopping toxic behaviour.

Schools are also grappling with how to change negative peer culture. Reinholdt recognizes TipOff's limitations and says its primary purpose in schools is to increase reporting and staff awareness. Her schools are also implementing social skills programs and encouraging positive student behaviour.

There's general agreement that schools, parents, governments and corporations must work together to tackle bullying — cyber or otherwise — and the culture whose viral shaming forced young girls like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons to feel like the only solution was suicide. Todd, Parsons and other such cases prove that "enough is enough," says Roher, and students must be educated to reflect that.

"So, how long will it take? I think it will take some time because this is a cultural and attitudinal shift," said Reinholdt, whose district will be deciding whether or not to implement TipOff in all of its schools in the near future.

"It isn't just a matter of saying, 'Stop doing it,' and that's the end of it. That just doesn't work in these cases. It really is changing behaviours and cultures and attitudes."