“What do you think about Jessica, Maureen, and Laura?” the online comment thread begins. “Jessica is mean and ugly,” someone replies. “Maureen is ugly and hyper,” writes another. After several more commenters—all of them anonymous—join in on bashing these three girls, someone who identifies herself as Maureen pipes up: “What did I ever do to you?”
Just like in a real high school, cyberbullies seek out the Internet’s most anonymous corners. One such space is Bathroom Stall, a Facebook application where people can write about their friends without identifying themselves. No topic, it seems, is off limits, from a girl’s bra size to the names of people a guy has “hooked up with.” (“Hottest boys at Barrie North?” one recent post inquired.) While some users give themselves nicknames, most are identified as “Anonymous,” and profile pictures aren’t used. Common Sense Media, which monitors kids and entertainment, recently called Bathroom Stall the number one anonymous application on Facebook (it has about 150,000 monthly active users). The U.S. non-profit also ranked it among 10 digital trends this decade that changed childhood—for the worse.
Why would today’s teens trash each other publicly? They have a “huge amount of trust in technology, and an inability to understand the damage that can be done,” says Sidney Eve Matrix, a digital trends expert at Queen’s University. They’re so comfortable “living in public,” she notes, that even schoolyard gossip—once whispered in dormitories or locker rooms—is now posted online. Cyberbullies might prefer to stay anonymous, but when it comes to naming others, they’re not so sheepish: on Bathroom Stall and similar sites, the victim’s full name is often provided. Comments can range from insulting to racist, homophobic and worse. A University of Toronto study, which polled 2,186 students in grades six, seven, 10 and 11, found that, in the past three months, one-half of all students were bullied online; being called names, or having rumours spread about them, were the most common forms. Forty-one per cent of those polled did not know how long information or pictures stay online. (Even if kids aren’t tech-savvy enough to realize the implications of what they’re posting, they do know how to trick the profanity filter, inserting a period or dash into offensive words so they’re not picked up and erased.)
Bathroom Stall is just one of several anonymous gossip sites, many of them aimed at students. On a big day, CollegeACB.com, a multi-school site, can get 500,000 hits. (ACB stands for “Anonymous Confession Board.”) At CampusGossip.com, some of the photos posted would make any potential employer think twice. And RateMyProfessors.com, perhaps the best-known site of its kind in Canada, lets students anonymously review teachers.
Peter Frank, a 19-year-old student at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, runs CollegeACB, which “gives students a place where they can talk about any subject anonymously,” he says. A quick perusal of the site shows most discussion is anything but high-brow. One post on the Adrian College discussion board asks people to name the “biggest slut” in school; another, for Yale, names a specific student and then says simply, “discuss.” (CollegeACB doesn’t yet have an advertising model; Frank is focused on building a body of users first.)
When asked about negative comments, Frank admits he knows “it’s going to happen. It’s the nature of anonymous discussion.” He adds, “The best we can do is try to clean it up.” If someone asks that a post be removed, he’ll do it, he says, generally in under 24 hours. (Frank gets up to 30 complaints a day.) While several schools have asked to be taken off the site, he seems unconcerned: “We don’t have any allegiance to [the school],” he says. “We’re not trying to make their lives easier.” While CollegeACB currently features only U.S. schools, Frank is hoping to expand into Canada.
Cyberbullying might take place online, but its effects bleed into the real world. Those who post insulting comments could face all kinds of repercussions, from defamation charges to being kicked out of school, says David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa. For the victim, the consequences can be more severe. “Many people are permanently harmed,” says David Smith, vice-dean at the U of O’s faculty of education, who says bullying can cause everything from depression to suicide.
Back in the Bathroom Stall, cyber-janitors, it seems, are busily whitewashing over graffiti: Facebook recently suspended the application, promising to bring “stricter content management” to it. (Kudos Media, the China-based developer, did not respond to requests for an interview.) Even if Bathroom Stall is renovated, though—or closed for good—it’s a safe bet other anonymous gossip sites will spring up to take its place. Bathroom stalls, after all, aren’t the only anonymous corners where bullies can do their dirty work.