A teenager is going to prison for 40 years because of an app

“Taco ear.”

“Crater face.”

“Slut.”

This is what teenagers called me in high school. The boys and girls hid behind their keyboards on AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace and hammered out insults—it felt like a game, whoever could cut the deepest would win.

Online bullying was still a new phenomenon in the early to mid-2000s. My mother didn’t understand why I would sit at the computer night after night hoping one of my “friends” might stand up for me in the evening’s chat room. Lucky for me, my harassment had a name and a face I knew behind it. The teenagers who used keystrokes as a weapon akin to bathroom swirlies had no qualms, and no other option, about their victim knowing their identity.

Cyberbullying has only grown as a tool for distributing teenage angst in the form of text posts and photos. As technology advances, so to do the means and opportunities of bullying.

In 2014, the Internet saw a renaissance of sorts: the rise of “anonymish” applications that are reminiscent of the forums that were popular in the early days of the Web. Whisper, Secret, Yik Yak, and even After School have provided new ways of communicating—anonymously and privately to select groups of people via mobile apps.

After one night of truly vicious barbs, I collapsed into her arms, tears streaming down my face, and begged her to fix me. 

In the case of After School and Yik Yak, the communities receiving the anonymous communications are schools. High school and college students use their locations to view posts from students around them. Whisper takes location into account when distributing photos and posts, and it also has a feature where users can add their school. Secret connects you to your established social networks and displays posts based on location, too.

It was hard enough when I knew the person who was tormenting me, knowing that my Myspace page or AIM chats would only be seen by me and perhaps a few other people. 

At 15, I got plastic surgery. I wanted to fix that “taco ear,” once and for all. It was an out-patient surgery I undertook over the summer so no one in my class would know what I’d done. It still looks different, and the scar remains from the cartilage that had to be removed and reshaped to give me an ear that wasn’t completely cupped over.

The only person who knew that bullying compelled me to get surgery was my mother. After one night of truly vicious barbs, I collapsed into her arms, tears streaming down my face, and begged her to fix me.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a teenager today.  

Balancing bullying with app success

Some anonymous apps have restrictions against bullying or harassment in place, as well as editorial staffers that flag malicious content, though it can be hard to enforce the rules. All of these apps are rated for ages 17+, but that doesn’t stop younger people from using them.

And it’s not always in the company’s favor to squash users’ opinions.

Secret was beloved by tech industry insiders and gossipmongers, but when a handful of high-profile people were personally targeted and criticized on the social network, Secret was prompted to establish new restrictions on speech. You can no longer name people in posts.

Community members may have applauded the tougher policies, but the app itself suffered. As Gigaom reported, Secret’s popularity began to decline when hate speech was policed. The company recently updated its app to include private messaging, a feature Whisper has, in an attempt to boost popularity once more.

Whisper is especially popular among young people. You can see posts ranging from declarations of love for One Direction to admissions of eating disorders. The company claims to have user protections in place, but as my colleague discovered earlier this year, Whisper is harming the very people it promises to protect. When users upload potentially dangerous posts, they’re prompted to choose a photo that illustrates just how they’re feeling.

Apparently, the word “kill” in my sentence pulled in multiple suggestions of handguns. Using the word “suicide” prompted a suggestion of a man in front of an ongoing train—and that was one of the tamer ones. The word “Cutting” yielded a wealth of triggering self-injury imagery, grim words dotted in blood on a forearm. “Addicted,” a bottle of Adderall, someone’s actual script, fully legible. “Bulimia” was full of “thinspo”—pictures swapped within eating disorder communities to keep sufferers devoted to suffering.

And of course, when we talk about anonymous app scandals, Whisper’s disregard for user data privacy must be mentioned. Allegations that the app tracks user location have been quieted but certainly not forgotten. 

Yik Yak, too, fell under serious scrutiny this year for enabling cyberbullying. Students used the app to make bomb threats and “ripped on someone about getting raped.”

In response, the company undertook an extensive overhaul of its system—Yik Yak blocked itself at high schools around the country in an effort to prevent it from becoming the digital equivalent of a bathroom stall. Though the company’s efforts still haven’t stopped teens from posting threats—teenage bomb threats continue to plague the app.

17-year-old Michigan student Jacob Young is facing up to 40 years in prison for something he posted on the anonymous application After School.

Serious incidences of bullying and harassment can prompt school administrators to issue warnings to the community, and as with any threat to student safety, kids are encouraged to report harassment.

To prevent cyberbullying, some school districts have begun to offer Internet and social media safety classes to students, in which they’ll learn appropriate and safe online behavior, and their parents can learn to understand warning signs of harassment, and how to appropriately react to things like suicide prevention, bullying, and drug and alcohol use.

An anonymous mistake

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. While the part of the brain that processes and experiences emotion is equal or more active than adults, their impulse responses aren’t yet matured, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That means teens have a greater tendency to act on impulse without regard for risk—bullies and their victims might not understand how their actions could potentially affect their future.

Despite warnings from parents and administrators, students still participate in peer harassment. For one school district in particular, an anonymous application upended the semester, and one student’s life may be forever ruined because of a post made on an anonymous app.

Seventeen-year-old Michigan student Jacob Young is facing up to 40 years in prison for something he posted on the anonymous application After School. He said he was going to “kill all the teachers,” and it forced a two-day lockdown at his high school.

Young’s lawyer Deanna Kelley told the Daily Dot that Young was simply trying to get the application shut down, and that he posted the cruelest thing he could think of. After posting, he tried to delete it, which After School didn’t allow it.

As a result, Young is charged with two felonies, and each could give him 20-year sentences: terrorism and using a computer to commit a crime.

“He has no prior criminal record or juvenile contacts with the police,” Kelley said in an email. “His current grade point average is approximately 3.5, and he works approximately 20 hours per week. I believe his teachers and school administrators would tell you he is an extremely bright young man with a peaceful existence.”

When Michigan school districts first heard about the application earlier this month, administrators sent home letters warning parents about the application, and police had to remind people that sharing inappropriate photos of teenagers could be considered distributing child pornography.

One student started a petition to get it removed from the App Store, and Apple pulled it eventually. It’s still accessible to students who never removed it from their mobile devices.

Anonymity still matters

Though students might be suffering from applications whose creators don’t realize the consequences these apps can have on developing minds, it’s not to say anonymous apps themselves are entirely bad. For many people, posting anonymously and developing connections with people who have similar interests can be cathartic, and having a place where you exist without a name can also allow you to become your true self.

Idealistically, it works. But as 2014 has shown us, significant improvements must be made to such applications and services in order for them to become a safe place for cliques to share secrets, rather than mobile versions of a Burn Book.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I still see scars of the imperfections my bullies picked on. But those blemishes on my spirit they created remain only visible to me, and me alone. Young and others like him don’t have that privilege. The Internet is eternal, and horrible things kids can write and share with each other can’t always be erased. With every Google search, the bully strikes again. 

Photo by KOMUnews/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Selena Larson

Selena Larson

Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.