Season 2 Episode 4: Goodbye Facebook, Hello Insta! What Apps Are Your Students Using and Misusing?

Joined by James McWeeney, an attorney at Walter Haverfield, Lisa and Miriam kick off a new series about social media challenges that school districts face on a daily basis. You’re probably familiar with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but what are some of the other apps most popular with adolescents and preteens? How do students misuse apps and what can school districts and parents do about it?

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Miriam: Welcome back to Class Act: Updates in Education Law. I’m Miriam.

Lisa: I’m Lisa.

Miriam: We’re attorneys at Walter | Haverfield. We practice school law, and every so often we get together and we chat about the latest legal developments.

Lisa: Today we’re kicking off a series on social media. We are going to be discussing social media apps and the way students use and misuse them. With us today is a special guest James McWeeney, an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who advises districts on legal issues related to technology. Welcome, James.

James: Thank you so much for having me.

Lisa: Welcome. Welcome.

James: Thank you very much.

Miriam: Okay. Before we begin talking about the specifics of these apps, we want to clarify so there’s no misunderstandings that we’re not critiquing the apps themselves. We are just here today to talk about what we’ve learned as to how students use and misuse apps.

Lisa: James, aside from speaking about various legal topics, you also give presentations about advances in technology, including the latest apps that kids are using. Why is this an interest for you?

James: Well, as we all know, technology is something that is constantly changing and it has provided us with countless benefits. We have access to information and we can get it quickly from various sources. These are good things that technology provides to us in our society. However, there can be things that are presented by technology and particularly social media apps when used by students that can be troubling for parents, and for educators, administrators in school districts. I think one thing that we have to understand is that because the world is constantly changing, we’re digital immigrants. This is a world where–

Miriam: I love that term, “Digital immigrants”. I like that.

James: Thank you. No, it’s not mine.

Miriam: Okay.

James: Yes. It is something that we all need to be aware of because of the fact that the world is not something that we know of. To me, it’s interesting because it’s always changing. It’s new, it’s all around us and the concerns that can be presented by the social media apps encompass a variety of topics. It could be things like bullying, it could be things like predators who use these apps in malicious ways. There’s just a number of issues out there to be aware of and concerned about if you’re a parent or an educator.

Miriam: James, do you ever feel as though like the old man who’s yelling at the kids to get off the lawn?

James: Every day.

Miriam: I mean, in other words, I guess what I’m asking is technology, I don’t know, sometimes I think about it as just a medium. I think kids will be harassing and unkind to each other whether it’s an iPhone, or a typewriter, or a rotary phone. Is it really kind of a complete change that we’re seeing right now or is it just another point on the continuum?

James: That’s a good question. There’s always change. I mean, change is the constant in our world but that pertains particularly to technology. There’s so much change and it happens so frequently that it’s incumbent upon us as educators, as parents to be aware of the world that’s out there. Yes, you can’t help but feel like an old man or an old woman because the world is always turning and transferring into something different when it comes to technology. Yes, I do feel that way. It’s unfortunate and my age actually makes me feel that way too.

Lisa: Well, I feel like the social media apps kind of are in and of themselves a little more difficult, since the majority of us didn’t grow up with these types of things. It’s a total new world for us in learning how they work, knowing about them, and there’s always new apps popping up every day. To keep track of them and know every single one that’s out there that your own child or the students in your school are using is just a very daunting task, I think for us adults.

James: Yes, absolutely. That’s where the idea of being a digital immigrant comes from. This just happens to be a world with which we are not, generally speaking, aware. It’s difficult to maintain awareness in this particular context because apps are always changing. There’s new ones every day and what’s the hot new thing of today is old news for yesterday.

Lisa: I think maybe what you’re saying is that, when we were kids, there were obviously others who were bullies or predators. It was much easier for parents and teachers to understand the dynamics and the context because we were all familiar with pen and paper, typewriters and even computers. Now, the landscape is changing so quickly, it’s much more difficult for parents and teachers to keep up.

James: That’s correct. Yes. Part of the issue is our own social and cultural awareness and upbringing. For us things like bullying or predatory behavior, generally speaking, these things happened in a face-to-face context. Now, we are working in a world where bullying, inappropriate texting, inappropriate messages that are being sent, predators can use these apps as a method of taking advantage of the user on the other end. We’re not used to that. We are used to bullying taking place in the face-to-face context.

Lisa: Okay. You have some anonymity that just creates a whole new–

Miriam: Shield. It’s like a shield.

Lisa: Yes. It seems to make bullying and making offensive statements almost just easier to put out there with less responsibility tied to it.

James: That is a key point when it comes to social media apps and their potential misuse by students. Anonymity provides the user with a faceless face essentially. You can hide behind the anonymity, say and do what you want, generally speaking without accountability. Because you have just a significant amount of anonymity, people tend to say what they think and what they want.

You don’t have the social rubric that you otherwise would have in place with a face-to-face confrontation. It’s sort of fosters an environment where people can say much more or are willing to say much more than they otherwise might do in an in-person context.

Lisa: Absolutely. Let’s take that concept and dive into some examples with some specific apps that we’ve seen students use and be problematic.

James: Well, yes. I like to start out with just the concept of Facebook. I mean, I think now at this point, we are all hip enough to know what Facebook is. That though is an example of what was here today is gone tomorrow. It’s not the kids don’t necessarily refuse to use Facebook, but what they do do is know that mom and dad are on Facebook. To the extent that there are private conversations that they want to have outside the realm of their parents’ eyes, Facebook isn’t going to be the place or the platform that they use to do that.

They’re going to turn to apps, and I like to start with an example that I think at least parents are somewhat aware of.

Miriam: I just want to say that you’re absolutely right, James. I have a bunch of teenagers, none of them are on Facebook. Facebook is not the platform.

James: That’s because that’s where you are. Right?

Miriam: Exactly. Yes, I’m on Facebook.

James: Right. Mom’s there, I don’t want to be there.

Lisa: I think you made a good point. Even those kids who are on Facebook, it’s kind of a surface level. That’s not where the problems are occurring.

James: Yes. You almost think of it like LinkedIn for adults. I mean, generally speaking, adults are not going to get on LinkedIn to have nefarious types of conversation.

Miriam: Oh, nefarious. That’s a good SAT word.

James: Yes, and I did not do well on my SATs. I’m coming back now and-

Miriam: Sorry to hear that.

James: – trying to regain what I lost then. The whole concept is that you wouldn’t expect to have these types of conversations on LinkedIn. Kids are the same way. It’s not that they are not in any way affiliated with Facebook but if there are conversations that they want to have that relate to bullying or anything else, it’s not going to take place on a realm or on a platform that mom and dad can see. They’re going to turn to other things that are less out there, less vivid.

Lisa: Do you have a good example of this for us?

James: Sure. Yes. I like to start with one that’s a bit easier for folks our age to identify with. Yes. See, I looked at Miriam at that point. She said, “Are you talking to me?”

Miriam: No. [laughter]

James: Yes. One that I like to talk about is Snapchat. My wife, for example, she has Snapchat. What you do with Snapchat is essentially you are able to take videos or pictures. You are able to capture them and send them to certain recipients but it’s only designated as being received for a certain period of time. In other words, when the recipient gets the video, when the recipient gets the photo, it purportedly disappears at some point in time.

The issue with this is that kids a lot of times will feel like, well because it, quote unquote, I’m doing air quotes here in the studio. “It doesn’t disappear.” Nothing disappears especially when you’re talking about electronically stored information.

Miriam: Okay.

James: We lawyers know that. If you’re in a lawsuit, people talk about things that you have electronically, it doesn’t disappear. The problem that can happen with this is that kids feel like because it’s gone, because it’s disappeared, I can send what I want. It’s no longer out there.

Miriam: There’s no repercussions. It’ll be a temporary thing and then it’s just gone.

James: Absolutely. It’s something that for instance, I’ll give you an example. Kids might be able to use this app and feel as if they are more able to do or engage in sexting because the app and it’s said, the idea behind the app is that the picture or the video disappears. It doesn’t necessarily disappear. In fact, there are other apps out there that can be used to actually capture things that are disappeared, and regenerate and reproduce them on social media.

Miriam: You can always take a screenshot, right? That’s another thing that kids can do even without an extra app. The recipient of whatever image or video can always screenshot it and save it that way.

James: That is a great point. Again, you’re operating under the assumption that  whatever it is that you’re sending is gone, but that’s not necessarily the case. Not only is there an opportunity to get these things back, but the recipient may keep it and may use it, may then further push it out into the world by other social media apps and use it as an opportunity to bully. For instance, if you’re sending private information, very personal information, you can take a screenshot, resend it, then at that point a student could become the victim of bullying.

Lisa: In my understanding too, students have used this to send things without the original student who took the picture even knowing that it’s going around to other people.

James: Yes. I’ll just segue that into another example, one that we may all be familiar with, but Instagram.

Miriam: That’s another one, yes.

James: Instagram is a little similar to Snapchat, only you don’t have a ‘disappearance’ of whatever it is that is being sent to your followers. What can happen is, similar to what Miriam talked about, you can have followers who take whatever it is you’re sending to them, regenerate it, repackage it, resend it out to a whole new group of people.

All of a sudden if it’s a bullying episode, the victim of the bullying has no idea why he or she is being targeted, has no idea what is being said about him or her on social media. Again, this is the potential misuse of an app and how kids could do so in a way that can harm each other.

Lisa: Technology just makes it so easy to spread that so quickly, so instead of maybe just showing one person you can easily show 10, 20, 30, 100 in a matter of seconds and minutes.

James: That’s such a good point. A lot of times we’ll go in sometimes and talk to kids about digital literacy and how to operate in the world. A lot of times what they don’t understand is that when you put something up on the web, it is there for the world to see. Something that could be personal, something that could be really sensitive immediately becomes for public consumption.

I think that’s a great point, and that’s the way, again, especially when you’re operating with kids who don’t necessarily think about or are aware of the implications of their actions, getting digital literacy regarding these apps is pivotal for parents and educators.

Lisa: Yes, I think you just said something really important about that kids don’t understand. We have to remember that even developmentally, they’re not thinking to many future consequences especially in this technology world.

James: Right. Absolutely.

Lisa: So even developmentally they need to be taught these kind of things and not just assume they understand it.

James: Right. Look, even as we know sometimes it’s difficult for us adults to even think beyond the present. A lot of adults make mistakes when it comes to social media. It’s incumbent upon us to be aware of these apps, to educate ourselves about them and to make sure that our kids are doing things digitally that is not going to put them in harm’s way.

Miriam: What about I know that used to be a huge problem, can you tell us about that?

James: was essentially a social networking app that provided a platform allowing users to pose questions and answers. The questions and answers could be posted from anonymous sources. What could happen with an app like this is that it becomes essentially a platform for bullying, for cyberbullying used by students. Again, that’s not the intended use of the app but that is what students would tend to use the app for.

Miriam: In other words, let me ask you an anonymous question, “Why are you such an idiot?”

James: Right. You could say something along the lines of like, “Does anybody know about this?” and someone’s response could be, “I know that you’re fat.” In other words, it provided students who intended to misuse it with an opportunity to cyberbullying. The effects were pretty pronounced. There have been instances where students have been subject of significant cyberbullying, and students in some cases have even gone as far as to commit suicide from the basis.

Miriam: That’s terrible.

James: It is terrible. That really gets back to what we talked about before about being a digital immigrant. That’s sort of a big theme that I think ties together this entire conversation for especially parents and educators. Is that the world of cyberbullying is not something we are attuned to, it’s not something that we are accustomed with. It’s different, it’s emotional, it’s not physical.

The effects that physical bullying had on us growing up are very different from the emotional and the mental toll that cyberbullying can take. Again, it’s unfortunate but there have certainly been instances where students have gone to the furthest length possible based on the emotional harm that they felt from cyberbullying.

Miriam: James, these apps they are responsive to some of these concerns, so they do sometimes change their parameters or the way they work, is that right?

James: Yes, absolutely. is an example. There were concerns related to cyberbullying with this app and so went back and provided a number of security measures that would be used to distill against future instances of cyberbullying. This is where the conversation and the education can have an impact. Parents will have to say, “What can we do?” and I know we’ll talk about that at some point. What you can do is educate and take a stance so that to the extent that there are issues and problems, these apps can be fixed. They can be addressed.

Miriam: Sometimes they’re even shut down. I know we heard about Yik Yak a while back, but that app was completely shut down just because there were a lot of concerns about it.

James: Yes. For those of you who don’t know what Yik Yak is, Yik Yak was essentially a social media platform that allowed people to find their herd, a digital herd. What users would be able to do is essentially connect in a geographical area with a number of anonymous non-profile users who were simply commenting, could comment about anything. It could be anybody who had the app and was into the social media platform within let’s say a mile or a mile and a half.

Lisa: Like students in a classroom but also an adult down the street?

James: Absolutely. You brought up students in a classroom; because there was a geographical limitation imposed with Yik Yak, a school could essentially become a virtual chatroom so to speak. Anyone in the school who was on the app could get in there, engage in the social media conversation, and all of the posts were coming from anonymous users. This really presented an opportunity for cyberbullying, but it also went beyond that.

Because, let’s say that you’re talking about a geographical limitation, a mile, a mile and a half, users who were outside the school could still post and engage in a conversation even if they’re beyond the school walls. You could get inappropriate messages from people who are walking down the street a mile away from the school, but students who are on the app and still in the school, they’re getting those messages unfiltered as well. Mariam, as you said, there were issues related to this, with cyberbullying, inappropriate language, sexting, things like that.

Lisa: It’s also another good example of what proactive strategies schools can do because at one point in time they could go in and set some geographical boundaries where it couldn’t be used. It’s also another good example of even if districts were doing this, there’s still a way students are getting around and using other apps and finding another way.

James: Yes. For every time–The example that you’re talking about has a specific term, it’s actually called geofencing, very digital, very technologically oriented. What geofencing allowed folks to do was to say, “We are going to block off this app from this particular location.” We used to give this talk in the past to certain school districts and parents were interested in geofencing.

What you could essentially do is say, “This app is inaccessible in this school.” There was a process though for the school to actually go in and make that geo-fence become a reality. To get to your point though, absolutely, there are things that can be done. The difficulty is that the app world is always changing. It requires consistent education, consistent attention, and quite frankly, consistent action. We have to be as smart or smarter than the apps that are out there.

Lisa: What are some of the apps that you’ve seen students use over the past year?

James: We talked about some of the traditional apps like Snapchat, Instagram, there are other apps that are out there that are up and coming that kids are using.

Miriam: Houseparty?

James: Houseparty, that’s right, yes.

Miriam: My kids have Houseparty, so I can talk about it briefly. Houseparty is kind of like Skype, but it allows multiple users. You are able to Skype with basically eight people at once.

Lisa: By Skype, you mean basically video chat?

Miriam: Video chat. You can video chat with, I think it’s up to eight people at a time. Of course the danger there is that sometimes kids will misuse it by video chatting with strangers.

James: Yes, absolutely. Essentially, it becomes a virtual party. You can have more than one virtual party at one time, you’ve essentially created a phone party, not necessarily a house party. Lots of problems can be– students can take this app and use it as a method of, for instance, cyberbullying. You can have one party that’s talking about a certain individual who’s not a member of that party, but then the story can get out and so it poses problems when students misuse the intended purpose of the app.

Miriam: Okay, just maybe a few more examples.

James: Sure.

Miriam: Musically, I know musically is another app that we had in our house and then I made my kids get rid of it because it was a little bit inappropriate. Musically, I think is an app, James, where kids lip sync to a song and they dance and then that’s a video that’s created and stored on the app, and then people follow them, but obviously, kids can misuse this in terms of sexualized dancing, inappropriate dancing, is that your knowledge of the app? Is that what you know about it?

James: Yes, and I think you could even go beyond that. First of all, you see how kids would be interested in something like this, it’s sort of a celebrity, focus on me culture, dancing, music, singing, that’s fun, those are fun. I’m sure, that’s why you said your daughter’s used it.

Miriam: Yes, they loved it.

James: They loved it. These are fun enticing apps for kids, the issue is that not only can you have inappropriate images that people follow, but also too you could have followers who have– and we used the word earlier, nefarious intense. People who could be predators who may be followers and kids may not know that that individual on the other end who’s following them, is in fact a predator.

Again, these apps can be good things, we like technology, it provides us with benefits that are essentially immeasurable at this point in time, but we just need to be aware and it sounds like you’re a perfect example of this, about how the apps can be misused by people who are actually using them.

Miriam: Okay, let’s do one last one.

James: Sure.

Miriam: Hot or Not.

James: Hot or Not is an app that a lot of kids are using that allows them to get on to this particular platform, and by the way to get onto the platform, you have to create an account, that account requires personal information. You have to provide account information, photos, things like that, a working e-mail address, so personal information to create an account. Users are generally 13 or older, can be 13 to 17. For instance, that’s a good example. The app issue is that when you have your photos on this particular app, followers and users have the ability to vote the picture as hot or not.

Miriam: You’re inviting a rating of yourself.

James: You’re inviting a rating. Particularly in our culture today when we’re talking about women, we’re talking about young girls, objectification of them, that can be a serious issue related to their own self-esteem, but it happens to boys too. Boys obviously want to be liked, and they want to be deemed good looking and in the club, so to speak.

Miriam: It seems that this can be so damaging.

James: Absolutely, and again there’s a fun element related to these apps, the misuse of them, however, by students can be detrimental. If somebody puts up pictures and they’re already feeling issues related to self-esteem…

Miriam: Body image…

James: …body image, emotional issues, a consistent rating that is negative towards that self-image can really have a negative impact in the near term and the long-term. Again, the misuse by students, it’s something that educators and parents particularly need to be aware of, need to educate themselves, and also need to find ways to ameliorate.

Miriam: We really appreciate you coming in and starting this conversation with us. I think next time, Lisa, we will talk about what parents can do and what schools can do in responding to the challenges faced by social media apps today.

Lisa: Right and I think just a great point from everything we talked about today is just how many apps are out there and that they’re ever-changing. We could talk about 10 today and tomorrow, there’s going to be 10 totally different ones. Just doing due diligence and being aware of what’s out there even though it is quite the task to keep up with is very, very important.

James: Yes, I think that that is the best takeaway point, is not the specific app, but the idea that this world, this technological app oriented world is here to stay, so we have to acclimate ourselves to it.


Miriam: Please join us for our next episode, and in the meantime comment and rate us on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast. Thank you much to everyone who has already rated us and we appreciate your emails and questions and comments, please keep them coming.

Disclaimer: The content of this podcast is provided for general information purposes only, the podcast is not legal advice, does not create an attorney-client relationship and should not be relied upon in making legal decisions. Actions on legal matters should be taken only upon advice of legal counsel. Walter |  Haverfield does not guarantee the accuracy of information contained in this podcast.