After School

Meet the new panic about teens using technology, same as the old panic about teens using technology.

This time around, the panic is about an app called After School, which bills itself as "Funny Anonymous School News For Confessions & Compliments."Owned by social media startup One, the app is aimed at high schoolers and provides a service similar to the anonymous, location based app Yik Yak. It allows users to post anonymous messages based on the school they attend and which only their classmates are intended to see.

This week a threat about shooting up a high school in Virginia was posted on After School, as well as one in Massachusetts. Meanwhile a school in Dallas is "Alarmed" by the app, and it "has Tampa Bay area parents worried."

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A recent profile in the Washington Post describes a student in Michigan named Mya Bianchi who had to change her phone number after it was posted on After School alongside instructions to contact her for photos; Bianchi's mother told the Post she doesn't " feel like there should be something that excludes parents” the way After School does. A principal in North Carolina describes his dismay at being able to do much because the app is anonymous.

What's a little odd about this particular panic is that After School itself isn't all that new. It showed up on the App Store and the Google Play Store last November, but was removed twice over the next month after it was used for cyberbullying and to post threats about bringing guns to a couple of schools. It relaunched on the App Store in April with a litany of new safety measures, including, according to a report by Re/Code, outsourced moderation by humans; every post would be viewed by someone before going up on the app, After School's COO and co-founder Cory Levy told the tech news site at the time.

For his part, Levy is also there in the Post's article, alongside his co-founder Michael Callahan, insisting the app is mostly benign and explaining their filtering process:

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Levy said that an algorithm automatically blocks posts with certain verbiage — like those that urge other students to harm themselves. And he said other posts are reviewed by dozens of moderators who screen for cyberbullying and harassment around the clock; users also can report individual posts to have them removed. Callahan said the bar is very low for what is banned: Even a comment such as “Michael is a slow runner” would be blocked. If they are aware their child is using the app, parents can now set filters to block certain content.

For comparison, Yik Yak's solution to the problem of underage teens bullying each other back in early 2014 was to remove itself from middle and high schools by blocking the app from those locations. That didn't didn't stop students from using it off-campus, though.

If you try and use After School, the app greets you with an image of a woman in a bikini with a tiger's head wearing shutter shades, the app's apparent mascot. Then it presents a list of nearby high schools; according to a recent article in The Washington Postthere are 22,300 schools on the service. If you choose a school, it attempts to verify you based on your Facebook profile and friends, though if it can't, it won't give you access.

After School has embarked on its own positive PR campaign. A visit to the website displays a grid of videos by satisfied users, each offering a testimonial about what they like about After School. "After School is awesome 'cause it's making me a star" one boy sings, strumming an acoustic guitar. "The thing about after school is that there's almost never anything negative," a girl with braces in a darkened room says quietly. There's unusual use of phrases like "best app on the marketplace," "connect with my friends," "how easy it is to navigate and use."

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Nothing about this is new, though. Parents and school officials have been concerned about Yik YakFacebookAOL Instant Messenger, and just the fact that their children are active online in general. It's absolutely true that bad online behavior are a part of student life now, both on college campuses and among younger students. This is just another instance that, as Vocativ's Annemarie Dooling has written, will probably be forgotten quite quickly.

That isn't to say it shouldn't be dealt with, or that After School is a perfect —or even a good— piece of technology, but that this is a human problem, not a technological one. Anonymity doesn't help the situation, but the idea that anonymity is a new feature of bullying is absurd.

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In the past you could make fake screen names, or block a phone number, or leave anonymous notes. Kids can be vicious, but After School isn't the source of that problem, or even its main amplifier. It's just an old issue wearing a different, tiger-and-shutter-shade shaped mask.

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net