After School is the latest mobile device application to take schools and parents by storm. We first became aware of the social media app when it was introduced in the fall of 2014. It created quite the controversy back then and was even removed from the App Store, at least for a brief period. It did come back pretty quickly but we hadn’t heard much about it because most youth weren’t joining. Now, it seems, some are. According to reports, students from over 22,000 schools nationwide are using After School (anywhere from 2 to 10 million total users–exact numbers haven’t been released). Although I suspect that use of this app is concentrated in a small number of schools. That’s how social media works: you’re not going to use a new site or app until your friends are using it. It takes a certain critical mass before it is widely adopted.
What is After School?
If you’re not familiar with it, After School works a lot like Yik Yak: users post brief comments (a lot like tweets) and other local users can see what is posted, but not who posted it. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision how this could create serious problems in schools. Yik Yak displays posted content (text, and now also photos) to anyone using the app within 1.5 miles of the poster (using the GPS coordinates of the device from which the content was posted). After School requires users to connect to a particular high school (confirmed through the user’s Facebook account). Even though users validate their identity through Facebook, the content posted to After School remains anonymous (at least to the public – administrators of the app would know who is behind the posting).
It’s worth noting that parents are not generally able to access the app because of After School’s requirement to affiliate with a specific school, again, confirmed through a user’s Facebook profile (although the app’s terms of service don’t seem to explicitly ban adults). An adult could, I suppose, set up a fake Facebook profile indicating they are a student at a particular school, in an attempt to circumvent this requirement. After School’s creators argue that teens are looking for an environment where they can communicate and interact without worry about the prying eyes of parents or teachers. That has certainly been true for generations of youth and many other apps offer similar opportunities for incognito and ephemeral interaction (SnapChat, Ask.fm, Kik). Teens generally now know that adults are eavesdropping (or even gawking) at their online content; and they’re interested in some measure of privacy when chatting with friends (just like adults, really).
Focus on the Behavior, Not Just the Environment
Overall, I don’t necessarily have a problem with an app like this as long as it provides easy-to-use tools to report offensive content, and the creators are honest in their commitment to remove hateful posts quickly. They also need to be responsive to law enforcement if content posted to the app crosses the legality line (as Yik Yak has done). According to the app’s Community Guidelines: “Bullying, objectionable, and threatening content is strictly prohibited from the app. Users who post this type of content will be permanently banned from After School.” Moreover, if it turns out to be a breeding ground for bullying, I am hopeful that teens will choose to avoid the app and it will go away like many before it (in fact, it was students who created a petition demanding its removal over a year ago when such problems first appeared).
Since apps like this seem to pop up every day, it is just another reminder that parents and educators need to work together to teach teens to make good decisions online (and off), no matter what they are doing or where they are congregating. Whether they are talking with friends in a private bedroom, or communicating using a public Facebook profile or a private/anonymous app, it is essential that teens have been taught to interact with others with integrity and respect. There will always be a way for people to express hatred toward others via technology – if it’s not on After School it will be on one of the dozens of other applications or social media sites. We obviously don’t want students to demonstrate cruelty online or off, and therefore must continue to work to encourage them to find ways to promote positivity across their peer group and demonstrate kindness and compassion instead.