CLARKS SUMMIT, Pa. — Lizzie Pettinato didn’t want to feel left out. As she scrolled through her phone one night earlier this month, the 14-year-old saw her friends had downloaded a new app, YOLO, which lets its users send anonymous messages to each other.
Within minutes, notifications popped up on her screen. For hours, the Abington Heights eighth grader received messages that were mean, vulgar, even threatening.
“I told myself to stop reading them, but I didn’t,” she said.
She cried for hours and stayed home from school the next day. When she returned, she visited the school’s social worker. Although the school offered her support, there was no way to determine who harassed her.
Weeks later, the messages still hurt.
“Kids take their life from bullying,” said Lizzie, who wants to provide a voice for children harassed and bullied online. “I think that everything being done anonymously should be put to an end. It’s childish. It’s hurtful.”
A Pew Research Center study last year found that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.”
Twenty-four percent of teenagers reported that social media has a “mostly negative” effect on people their age, mainly because of bullying, the spreading of rumors and the lack of in-person contact.
The teens watch YouTube videos, ‘like’ Instagram photos and post photos or videos on Snapchat that disappear after they are viewed. YOLO, which is free to download, is used through the Snapchat app.
Lizzie and her peers say they can’t just put down their phones because it’s how everyone their age communicates.
Jake Gentile, 14, also an Abington Heights Middle School eighth-grader, spends much of his time outside of school on Snapchat and Instagram. Friends with Lizzie since the second grade, he saw the effect of the anonymous words.
“It’s so harmful,” he said. “People are cowards. They hide behind the screen.”
Gone are the days when a home had one phone, which was usually mounted on the wall in the kitchen, said Valley View Superintendent Rose Minniti, Ed.D.
“With bullying, the difference is we were able to go home and get away from it,” she said. “Now, kids have the whole world in their pocket 24/7 and anyone can access them.”
For area schools, apps like YOLO distract from education – and threaten students’ mental health and well-being.
“I’m convinced bullying takes place every night in the Abington Heights School District,” Superintendent Michael Mahon, Ph.D., said. “These apps are irresponsible efforts that too easily facilitate this type of behavior. It’s a serious thing. YOLO is just the latest in a long list of irresponsible technology that ultimately victimizes kids.”
Many apps prone to bullying – Sarahah, Burnbook and Yik Yak – were either shut down by developers or pulled from app stores in recent years.
Before using YOLO, a yellow box pops up and warns users not to bully. The message hasn’t worked. Attempts to reach YOLO officials were unsuccessful.
At Abington Heights Middle School, anti-bullying posters cover many hallways. For students like Lizzie, bullying and harassment doesn’t happen within those walls.
“Everything happens on social media,” Lizzie said.
Within the last few years, school districts strengthened efforts to investigate acts of harassment or bullying that happen outside of school hours and punish those at fault.
The Scranton School District will soon update its policy to allow for school officials to become involved when online harassment occurs after school, if those postings interfere with a student’s education.
“For students who are being cyberbullied, it can really be damaging to them. It causes them anxiety, depression,” Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., said.
Schools encourage students to come forward with concerns, whether about themselves or their peers.
Violence-prevention program Safe2Say Something, launched by the state in January, teaches students to recognize warning signs and signals and submit concerns anonymously through a tip line, website or cellphone app. The Scranton School District received and investigated 134 tips in just four months.
Statewide, people provided 20,943 tips to the hotline, including 3,500 life-safety tips, which are then forwarded to both the local school district and the local 911 call center, according to the state attorney general’s office. Many of the tips involve bullying.
In the five years North Pocono Middle School Principal Matthew Montoro has worked in administration, he has become more involved with investigating bullying and harassment that happens outside of school.
“Typically, the kids come forward to us,” he said. “Middle school kids are, for the most part, honest and have genuine empathy and concern for their peers.”
With parents’ permission, he asks to see text messages or images used to hurt others.
At Valley View Middle School, administrators also deal with issues that originate outside of school. Principal Craig Sweeney said he can sometimes trace the harassment, but students often have multiple accounts and even use each other’s phones. The school tells the students to take a screenshot and save it. The school resource officer sometimes becomes involved.
Guidance counselor Susan Rodway tries to prevent issues from arising, including by instituting kindness programs and by telling students they don’t need to use apps where bullying often takes place.
“Our children need to feel they’re in a safe environment,” she said. “They have the power. … Any app you have is a choice.”
Lizzie transferred to Abington Heights from a Catholic school at the start of seventh grade. She said she tried hard to find a “friend group” at the middle school.
Anonymous messages she received could have come from new friends she invited to her home or the girls she sits with at lunch.
“Every time I’m sitting there, I wonder, ‘are you the one who said these things about me?’” she said.
Her mom, Maggie Pettinato, wants parents to become more aware of what their children do on their phones.
“Stay vigilant, stay aware of changing technology. Talk to your kids about not doing things anonymously. It’s cowardly and shameful,” she said. “The children, nor the parents, nor the school, can handle this separately. It will win, instead of us.”
Lizzie disabled YOLO and deleted Snapchat after she received the messages. She reinstalled Snapchat a day later to be able to keep up with friends.
“I just want people to be able to communicate on social media. That’s what our generation lives on,” she said. “There are positive sides to social media, but I want the anonymous side to go away.”