Anonymous Tiplines: A Source of Bullying

In 2019, school administrators know that anonymous tip lines mean managing false reports. Here we examine the 43 year old anonymous tip line, its pitfalls and how anti-bullying apps can increase bullying behaviors in schools.

How to improve anonymous tip lines

What is an anonymous tip line?
The idea behind an anonymous tip line is very simple, well established and hasn’t evolved much since the first one: Crimestoppers. Crimestoppers of Puget Sound shares how the project was founded by a police officer investigating a murder:

“In 1976…he conceived the idea of …guaranteed anonymity for anyone who was willing to call him with information and put up a reward from his own pocket to encourage someone to provide a lead that would help identify those responsible for the murder.”

The Simplicity of Crimestoppers
This tragic story has a fairytale ending. The good guy caught the bad guy and justice was served. Many anecdotes from anonymous tip line apps are similarly heroic and simple. This has allowed the process and the perception of Crimestoppers to stay the same without examination.

Unfortunately for anyone interested in analyzing complex realities, there has not been any independent studies done on the validity of these tip lines.

So, do tip lines work?
Anonymous tip lines, whether they’re phone numbers or mobile apps, receive a lot of tips. What’s unclear is how many of those reports are valid and how effective tip lines really are.

How effective are tip lines?
In short, it’s impossible to say how effective any tip line is without a study, said a research study developer who spoke to us off the record. Without the reports from the anonymous tip line apps sold to schools (which are under no obligation to disclose the effectiveness of their products), we only have anecdotal evidence on their effectiveness to look to– all of which is 100% positive when the apps that follow the anonymous reporting model, such as Safe2Tell, SaySomething and Okay2Say are self reporting.

How would we design a study on the effectiveness of tip lines?

But what other perspectives are there?

Administrators indicate that  anti-bullying apps can cause harm
Anonymous tip lines allow people to report information without fear of social fallout but also without accountability. As any school administrator with a tip line to manage will tell you, tip lines are often misused, especially by students, as instruments of revenge and even bullying.

Students Say Anti-Bullying apps increase bullying
Look to any app store review and you’ll see dozens of students reporting that they have been targeted through the app.  

App Store Reviews of Okay2Say
App Store Reviews of Safe2Tell
App Store Reviews of SaySomething

News stories discuss the limitations of anonymous reporting as well. One student mentioned in EdWeek, Lucy Geisleman, 15 had an especially unfortunate and all too common experience:

“Pranksters called in three false drug and suicide reports about her, Geisleman said, and police twice pulled her out of class to discuss the tips.”

Summary
Anonymous tips have been examined in podcasts, in court cases and in news media. School administrators and school counselors would do well by their students to demand efficacy information before approving any new apps be tested on their students, possibly to their detriment

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