I'm texting you an insult right now. Blame me and my parents, not my smartphone. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
I'm texting you an insult right now. Blame me and my parents, not my smartphone. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

There are moments when the tech lobby sounds a little bit like the gun lobby: Apps don’t bully people, people with apps bully people. The analogy comes to mind after the latest round of news media attacks on a particular company -- in this case, the creators of Yik Yak -- because teenagers have been using it to target other young people for abuse.

On this one, I’m with the tech lobby. A bully will use whatever technology comes to hand. But the villain is the bully, not the tool.

If you haven't heard of Yik Yak, you're bound to soon, because it's growing fast, with more than 200,000 users just four months after its introduction. Yik Yak is a smartphone application that allows users to send anonymous messages to other users in their vicinity. You can share your message free with the nearest 100, 250 or 500 Yik Yakkers (measured by distance), or you can pay a fee to share with as many as 10,000 users. Yik Yak was designed by two Furman University students with an eye toward their fellow collegians, and four months after starting already has more than 200,000 users. But now high school and middle school students have discovered Yik Yak, and that’s where the app’s problems begin.

Last month, two students in Mobile, Alabama, were arrested after a threat to shoot someone at a local high school appeared on Yik Yak. Anonymous bomb threats on Yik Yak have led to school lockdowns across the country. And now that the app has become a popular tool for bullies, schools officials have tried to ban it or block it on campus.

We’ve been down this road before. Just last year, Ask.fm faced a boycott by advertisers because of cyberbullying that allegedly led to suicides. A decade ago, MySpace was all but destroyed by similar allegations. The founders of Yik Yak, obviously aware of this history, have announced a plan to create geo-fences so that their app will not function around schools.

To be sure, the change is purely cosmetic: Bullies needn’t be on campus to post their messages, and neither victim nor audience need be on campus to read them. But the focus on the app is a distraction. If students are posting bomb threats or harassing their peers on Yik Yak, the problem isn’t the app; the problem is the students.

Consider the threats to do violence. Obviously a school has no choice but to take them seriously, even though most of them are meant as some sort of twisted humor. Students who fantasize about killing their classmates are suffering from severe psychological problems that the technology didn’t cause. If on the other hand they think they’re being funny -- which often is the case -- then the problem, if you will allow me to be old-fashioned, is how they were raised.

Bullying is more complex, but in the end I come out in the same place. There is serious bullying in our schools. I’m not talking about the contested case where Student A is punished for talking publicly about what his religion teaches on, say, human sexuality. I’m talking about the case where Student B sends messages to Student C telling her that she’s worthless and that the world will be better off without her.

We don’t know the actual prevalence of bullying. The peer-reviewed literature on the topic comes up with a wide variety of figures. So let’s just say bullying happens a lot, and leave it at that.

What is clear from the literature is that bullying is rarely private: The bully likes an audience. Bullying is overwhelmingly a status-seeking behavior. Teenage bullies -- especially but not exclusively male bullies -- tend to be held in high esteem by their peers. When onlookers laugh or in other ways show that they’re impressed, the status of the bully tends to rise. That’s why a lot of anti-bullying work quite sensibly focuses on reducing the esteem in which bullies are held.

Some of the same studies suggest that when classmates defend the bullied student, the reward to the bully’s status is smaller and may even be negative -- and, more important, the bullied student is significantly less likely to suffer emotional trauma. Therefore another component of anti-bullying work is encouraging onlookers to get involved.

Is cyberbullying worse than other bullying? Possibly. Young people today experience the online world as a significant portion of their reality, a relatively libertarian space in which they can navigate as and when they choose. Threats delivered within that space might well be felt more intensely than slips of paper shoved into a school locker.

But the same logic should apply to both cases. If the online bully is seeking to increase his status, then critical responses via the same social network would seem to be a first-order defense. Again, this requires classmates to get involved.

Once we see that the model of bullying and effective response is the same whether or not the events occur online, it’s obvious that the technology isn’t to blame. Bullies grab at Yik Yak for the same reason they grab at Ask.fm -- because it happens to be available and because they know they’ll get an audience. What makes a difference isn’t the medium the bully happens to choose, but the way the audience responds.

Ironically, Yik Yak was developed to help users escape from the boxes in which young people imprison one another. On Yik Yak, the company says, "The only thing you are judged on is the content that you have created." Not a bad idea. Anonymity can be a splendid tool of freedom. Alas, it is also a dangerous temptation, and, in the hands of those seeking to settle scores and call names, the mark of the coward.

If, as I believe, the problem of cyberbullying is a problem not of technology, but of child-raising, how ought we to deal with it? Perhaps we should recover the early common-law tort that was a predecessor of our law of defamation. Centuries ago, if A insulted B to his face, B could sue for the insult -- even if nobody else heard it. One of the remedies, according to Theodore Plucknett’s history of the common law, was that “the offender must hold his nose and call himself a liar.”

Sounds like a good place to start.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.