Anonymity and instant sharing are two of the most important features in smartphone and tablet apps these days, but they’re also the very features that put their target audience groups — teenagers and college kids — at risk for mental health problems, social anxiety, and peer-on-peer bullying.
Apps like Whisper, Ask.fm, and Yik Yak have already capitalized on the anonymity factor and have been marketed toward teens, who still value the sharing features of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, but are — surprisingly — more aware (compared to earlier generations) of privacy and anonymity concerns on the web.
It wasn’t long after its November debut that the newest anonymous sharing app, After School, became one of the most notorious and dangerous apps available to teens. Apple has been forced to pull the app from its store multiple times, after high school shooting threats starting appearing on the forums.
According to Detroit CBS, an 18-year-old student from Flushing Township, MI posted the status “Bringing a Gun to School,” which ended up being a fake threat, according to local news sources. Nevertheless, it resulted in heightened security at the school, as well as a letter from school officials urging parents to delete the app from their children’s phones.
Despite After School’s dedication to anonymity, law enforcement officials were able to obtain a subpoena which allowed them to access a full list of every student in the Flushing Township school who had been using the app, as well as the name of the student who made the gun threat.
Police were able to track down the student and take him into custody — but not before another student at Brandon High School (located near Detroit, MI) was arrested for using After School to make shooting threats against his peers.
Along with the message “Tomorrow I’m gonna shoot and kill every last one of you, and it’s going to be bigger than Columbine…Death to you all,” the second Michigan teen also posted pictures of a shotgun, with the accompanying caption “Bang bang Brandon, bang bang.”
On one hand, these apps give kids a safe place to share their deepest secrets and concerns, and to be sure, many of the posts on anonymous apps are genuine and harmless. But on the other hand, these apps are largely unmonitored and they connect users to each by means of regional proximity, allowing teens to gossip about and bully their peers without facing any consequences.
For now, Apple has removed After School from its app store, and it’s no longer possible to access or download the app on any mobile devices. Nevertheless, it’s very likely that more anonymous apps will be developed and marketing to teens — unless law enforcement officials, politicians, and school administrators are able to find a reasonable way to exercise more control.
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