Ironic? Yes. Disappointing? Definitely. But it's also an affirmation that there's more to be done during Digital Citizenship Week and Connected Educator's month to help our students be safe, smart, responsible, and ethical digital citizens.
Streetchat is described as "A live photo board for schools and colleges." The app uses geo-location services to let students search for their school's photo board, where they anonymously post personal photos. Students are able to upload any picture from their own photo roll or any screenshot or picture they've found online. Once students have chosen a photo to share, they're able to edit it by superimposing text onto it or drawing on it. For example:
We took a screenshot of the Common Sense Media logo, pulled it up in Streetchat, added text ("Cool place 2 work :)"), and used a pen tool to add some doodles. If we were part of a school photo board, we'd then press Send and anonymously upload the edited image to it.
So what's the concern? Once an image is posted to a school's photo board, followers within that community "Upvote," "Downvote," "Flag," or "Comment" on it. Upvoting and Downvoting influence a post's visibility. Flagging lets users tag iffy content, and comments let others add their thoughts or reactions to an image. What results is a stream of images with added text and drawings that don't reveal who posted, voted for, flagged, commented on, or shared them.
How it gets ugly: Although Streetchat's rules specifically forbid "nudity, bullying, hateful speech, and other forms of objectionable content," many kids have discovered that the app is well-suited for just these kinds of posts. As we've seen with some other social apps, anonymity may embolden some teens to behave inappropriately because they think they can't be identified. Examples of this behavior on Streetchat include pulling a photo of a student from her personal Instagram account and superimposing the text "school slut" over it, or using the drawing tool to modify a photo of a teacher to look as though he's making an inappropriate gesture. The Common Sense Media review of the Streetchat app provides more savvy insights.
What may be adding fuel to the fire is that Streetchat promotes a hierarchy among its users: The posts with the most Upvotes top the "leaderboard," and the user in that position gets a crown icon next to his or her username. Students vying for the top position have been known to create increasingly salacious content to attract more attention. One principal we work with described the remaining tiers of the hierarchy in terms of varying levels of involvement. The tier below the leaderboard includes users who are content producers but whose posts get less attention. Below them are the users who don't create content but vote posts up and down. Finally, there are the users who are on the site to keep an eye on the content, often just to make sure that they -- and their friends -- haven't ended up as targets.
What can educators do? At some schools where content has been flagged, photo boards have been shut down. Nevertheless, by the time a photo board has been disabled, the damage has been done. One principal told us he was astounded by how fast Streetchat touched down, wreaking havoc in his school community, and then was suddenly gone -- all within a matter of days. Here's what you can do:
- Start a conversation. Many students initially download Streetchat because some of its content is funny (e.g., a picture of a man drinking milk accompanied by the text "What if soy milk … is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish?"). But once community members are paying attention, the content can get both personal and ugly very quickly. Remind students that anonymous apps can enable meanness; there are smarter, less risky ways to find comic release.
- Talk about digital footprints. Explain that the Internet's "veil of anonymity" can lift quickly. Hiding behind a screen and posting anonymously seems risk-free -- but nothing online is really anonymous.
- Encourage students to stand up and opt out. For those who are targeting others on social media, attention is hugely motivating. Remind your students that they have the power to change the conversation -- to report bad behavior and to choose not to use the app.
- When you see it, record it. As with all cyberbullying, be sure to take screenshots of any problematic posts. Note that in Streetchat, usernames aren't visible in the photo stream (the landing page), but when you click on an image, it gives the username of the account from which the image was posted -- as well as the usernames of those who commented on it. Although a student may not be readily identified by his username, you'll have the evidence if you need it.
- Involve your parent community. It's hard to keep up with new and popular technology. Let parents know about Streetchat and other popular social apps, and bring them into the conversations about students being their best, both online and offline.