Confession: Online fad sweeps across ND schools
FARGO -- An online fad is sweeping across area high schools and colleges, allowing students to post anonymous "confessions" about life as a young student.
The confessional Twitter accounts have become a platform for cyber-bullying, leading at least two students to file harassment reports with Fargo police as of Tuesday afternoon.
Some of the posts are mundane or even complimentary. But the Twitter feeds also feature in frequent doses the sort of raw, hurtful taunts and accusations that have long been common fodder for teenagers -- except in writing and shared for anyone to see in an online forum.
Hundreds of tell-all Tweets have been churned out since the local accounts started popping up Sunday, posts that often call out students by their full names as sexual orientations are questioned, rape allegations are aired and students are accused of cheating on boyfriends and girlfriends.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were high-school confession pages on Twitter for students at Fargo South, Davies, Shanley, Oak Grove and West Fargo. An account for Fargo North existed at one time, but has since been suspended by Twitter.
The accounts are moderated by one or more students who set them up through Twitter, a social media site where messages are 140 characters or less.
School officials say they are aware of the trend, but there is little they can do to prevent them other than educate students on the downside of vicious and personal public sniping.
"This one is a little bit unique in the fact that it's anonymous," said Troy Cody, principal at Davies. "It's just the latest fad. And it's pretty sad that this is unfortunately where some of this social media has led itself to."
Tell me about it
Telling all on Twitter is not unique to the region. A search for "confession" on the social media site brings up similar accounts for schools, colleges and universities across the country.
Officials at Davies High School suspect the trend started locally at North Dakota State University, but other confession accounts exist for the University of North Dakota, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College. MSUM has at least four.
Any student -- or anybody with an email account, for that matter -- can create a Twitter page anonymously, and set it up to be a "confession" page for their high school classmates. That one student then acts as the moderator for the page and has control over what gets posted and what doesn't. The password for the moderator account could theoretically be shared among many people.
If the profile is made public, anyone with access to the Internet can view the page. Twitter also has a private profile option, which then makes it so the moderator has to accept someone before they can view the postings.
On Tuesday afternoon, all of the area high school confession pages were public.
Once the page is created, fellow students can log into their own Twitter accounts, go to the page and send private messages, or "confessions," to the moderator, who then posts that information on the page for everyone to see.
Some moderators set up polls through third-party sites like SurveyMonkey, a free polling website that doesn't require registration. One simply clicks the Survey Monkey link and is brought to a blank box in which to write their confession anonymously.
Other accounts link to www.guerrillamail.com, which allows users to create a random, temporary email address from which they can tell all.
Sean Safranski, principal at Shanley, said Tuesday that he is aware of the pages. He said officials at the school try to take an educational approach to the issue of cyber-bullying, impressing upon students the lasting effect of posting private information on the very public Internet.
"It's not just one thing to be embarrassed in front of your classmates. Now you're embarrassed in front of the whole town or the whole state because things just blow up on those electronic message boards," Safranski said.
Think before you post
Students at Shanley are not allowed to use phones in the classroom, and Facebook and Twitter are blocked on the school's server, Safranski said. Similar rules are in place in high schools across F-M.
Still, students can access social media on their smart phones through their cellular data plans.
"It's not difficult for students anymore to access this outside of the Fargo network," said Todd Bertsch, principal at Fargo South.
Because fully blocking the sites is impossible, schools work to educate students on properly and appropriately using social media.
"We just encourage our students to 'T.H.I.N.K.' before they speak," Cody said, meaning they should make sure their statements are true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind.
"There's a majority of our 1,200 students in our building that aren't engaged in this activity," Cody added.
The Davies confession page had over 420 followers Tuesday. Before it was suspended, Fargo South's original page had around 225 followers. Shanley and West Fargo and Oak Grove all had under 100 followers.
Because the Fargo North page was suspended by Tuesday afternoon, it was not immediately known how many people were following it.
Cody, with children himself, also pushed monitoring responsibility onto fellow parents.
"Giving your child access to the World Wide Web at the touch of their fingers, there needs to be some level of checks and balances," he said.
Deleting pages difficult
The Fargo South account was suspended by Twitter on Tuesday likely because of complaints, Bertsch said an alumnus told him. But despite that, a new account, under a new name, appeared by the afternoon.
Deleting the other pages or finding who is behind them is proving difficult for school officials.
Fargo police Officer Michael Austin, the school resource officer at Davies, said he spent the weekend reading Twitter's terms of usage, and he believes the only way to get a page banned or obtain a warrant for information about who is running the account is if there it causes an "imminent danger."
"We have no way of controlling it," he said. "I'm watching it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now."
Lt. Joel Vettel said when it comes to the harassment complaints filed Monday, the content of the posts seemed more "derogatory" than criminal. Police are still investigating.
"In the old days, they wrote that information on the bathroom wall," Vettel said. "Now they found a new way of doing it, and that's through technology."
Austin, though, added that because of the anonymity of the site, they had no suspect in the case.
"And I don't know how we're going to find any," he said.
Some principals agreed they felt "powerless" and "helpless" to control the Twitter bullying, largely because of the anonymity of the site.
Officials can take disciplinary action if the online bullying harms the "learning environment" or a student, Bertsch said.
"Then we definitely will take action and work with those kids and parents to stop it," he said.
For those looking to avoid the sites, Austin offered what he advises to the students at his school.
"Don't follow them because that's really what they want you to do, and they want to get a reaction out of you," he said.
Some students are taking a different approach.
A West Fargo High School Compliment page was also started on Monday, run by a self-proclaimed Packer, and posting only positive things about the school and the student body.
The moderator posted on Monday: "550 compliments shows how strong (West Fargo) really is. Thank you everyone!"