Despite nationwide efforts to foreground measures to prevent bullying—including annual campaigns like National Bullying Prevention month—bullying remains a serious public health issue. Tech developers have responded to this crisis with, predictably, more technology. From apps that assist parents in educating their children about bullying, to technology that purports to record and track incidents in the moment, there is no dearth of downloadable solutions for anyone seeking a response to this problem.
I had already graduated high school in New York City by the time the first bullying prevention law was enacted in 1999. In the near quarter-century since the state of Georgia took the lead in criminalizing bullying, all 50 states have, in one form or another, taken action to address this problem. While I’m glad to see progress made on this front, it’s too little too late for those who moved through school with targets on their backs, as I had. It’s because of my own experiences that I follow discussions about anti-bullying efforts with great interest—and also a healthy dose of skepticism.
The Tech-Based Elephant in the Room
As an educator, I’ve seen firsthand how school administrators often talk a good game when it comes to their school’s “no-nonsense” or “zero-tolerance” bullying policies. Walk into any school, and you’re likely to see at least one anti-bullying poster hanging up in the halls, some even created by students themselves. But as a teacher and a survivor of extreme abuse at the hands of several of my former peers, I know firsthand that modern-day anti-bullying laws, policies, and apps are only as effective as the adults willing to enforce them.
It remains true that not all school officials take bullying complaints seriously, as was the case with one school district in California that was recently found complicit in the digital bullying campaign against one of its students. The district was ordered to pay out 1 million dollars in damages to the teenage victim. According to NBC News, “The gross negligence by School, Teachers, Principal, and District resulted in significant physical and psychological trauma to Claimant.”
As I encounter such stories, I can’t help but wonder whether and how anti-bullying technology could make a difference for victims, but also their aggressors. According to Kati Morton, licensed marriage and family therapist, media personality, and author of the book Traumatized: Identify, Understand, and Cope with PTSD and Emotional Stress, in relying on technology to address the problem of bullying, we’re looking outward for solutions that might be inward. “I don’t really see technology being effective. We need to have more conversations, and this needs to be face-to-face with parents. We also need teacher intervention,” she said. With cyberbullying defining so much of how children now experience bullying, Morton believes that “we need to take solutions offline.”
It would seem, also, that some technology has placed the onus of finding a solution squarely in the hands of the targets. Requiring victims to do more work to achieve safety in spaces where safety should be a given (such as schools) doesn’t seem right to some mental health experts. “We’re putting this responsibility on the person being hurt to download an app and take these extra steps. We need to deal with the people who are bullying. There need to be consequences,” Morton says.
And consequences require adult intervention. When I was moving through school in the ’80s and ’90s, my teachers and administrators refused to support me and my family in our quest to put an end to the bullying I experienced. While it’s comforting to believe that there is a competent adult—or a group of capable people ready and willing to take action with the click of a download button—it’s hard to say whether an app, no matter how well-designed, can fill in the gaps where officials and other adults refuse to step up in real-time.
App-Based Solutions and Issues of Access
But the larger issue at play is perhaps one of access. We were a working-class family; I didn’t have consistent access to Wi-Fi until I went to college and every building was outfitted with internet access. I got my first cell phone well into my twenties, when I was able to pay for it myself. I’m forced to question whether my family would have had access to the latest anti-bullying tech, had such things existed at the time. According to Vanessa Allen, a North Carolina-based school counselor and author of The No More Bullying Book for Kids: Become Strong, Happy, and Bully-Proof, any tools designed to educate children and adults to be proactive upstanders in the face of bullying are positive contributions to this difficult issue. But the reality is that not all families will be able to use the latest tech. “I believe that tools created to inform children, parents, and educators about ways to combat bullying are great to have access to and to use in educating. However, an app alone cannot stop bullying. Who’s to say all kids have access to the technology? I don’t believe we can depend on an app to do what bystanders and adults must do,” she says.
And in a perfect world, we shouldn’t have to depend primarily on technology to do the often gritty, ugly, and soul-searching work of anti-bullying advocacy. But is there a place for app-based intervention?
Apps Might Fill an Unfortunate Niche
Perhaps apps have a small—but unfortunate—role to play. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist, consultant, and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, suggests that certain app-based interventions could help some children to rethink sending the sort of messages that might cross over into cyberbullying. For example, Instagram’s anti-bullying tool has used artificial intelligence since 2019 to prompt users to reconsider hurtful language. “The mere fact of their existence could stop some bullying, but not because the bully is becoming less of a bully. More likely, it’s because they don't want to get caught knowing that tech could create evidence that results in consequences,” Durvasula explains. She likened some bully prevention apps to red-light cameras—they don’t necessarily make us better drivers, but most of us abide by them because we don’t want to be caught breaking traffic laws.
And perhaps that’s precisely where anti-bullying tech fits into the equation. We all hope that school administrators—and parents, for that matter—take bullying complaints seriously. We also hope that anti-bullying laws will continuously be updated to reflect the challenging times we’re in. But if the ongoing news cycle is any indication, such hopes don’t seem to amount to much. In the end, true anti-bullying prevention relies on caring and competent adults to create safe spaces, tech or no tech.
All bully prevention apps—whatever their features—seem to stand in as a support system of sorts. For example, KnowBullying, a bully prevention and education resource created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, can be used as an educational tool that provides information on bullying, including how to know whether your child is being affected and how to intervene. Bully Button is another popular app described as a “multi-platform process for administrative intervention in situations of abuse, bullying, cyberbullying, and social aggression.” This app is something schools and school systems would have to buy and encourage people to use and report incidents in, and is more of a tracking tool than an intervention tool.
STOPit Solutions is another web-based option that, in addition to reporting bullying, allows users to connect with trained crisis counselors. Taken together, anti-bullying apps seem to provide options in the absence of other kinds of meaningful support.
So is tech a solution to the bullying epidemic? Perhaps in the absence of meaningful institutional support and adult intervention, bullying prevention apps make a lot of sense. But none truly get at the heart of the problem—tech-based solutions seem to function less like solutions and more like distractions from the larger, more sobering reality that many adults refuse to acknowledge. As school counselor Vanessa Allen points out, “When children do speak up and nothing is done or the adult doesn’t believe them, they lose faith that the adults in their lives will do anything at all.” Bully prevention apps appear poised to address this unfortunate reality. In that way, maybe they’re onto something.