The Bully Button: New Tool Is Either World's Greatest Anti-Bully Weapon or Terrifying Fascist Plot

A new app could make your smart phone the best protector you ever had -- but is that a good thing?

If you and I were together on the middle-school playground and you could poke me in the gut while calling me a stupid cripple and nobody would see us except seven passive cowards and three of your suck-up toadies, would you? Sure you would.

But what if I could film you on my iPhone? Better yet, what if with one click I could send this footage instantly to school administrators, your parents and mine and the police?

A new app can do that. Last week, launched its Bully Button, which allows users to document and report bullying incidents with a single touch. An upgrade, to be launched in two months, adds GPS and other features ascertaining the bullying incident's exact time, place and even barometric pressure.

This is either the world's greatest anti-bully weapon or a terrifying fascist plot.

"My theory is one of complete transparency," says OptimizeApps CEO Thomas Murphy. "Everything's on camera now. That's just how it is. If you're doing something that's good to be doing, it doesn't matter whether or not we see you doing it. If you're doing something bad that you're ashamed of doing, then you shouldn't be doing it."


Bullying is bad, mmkay? No, seriously: so bad that it sometimes ends in suicide. The martyrs' roll call is a harsh reality: Jamey Rodemeyer. Jamie Hubley. Jared High. Tyler Clementi. Haylee Fentress. Paige Moravetz. Phoebe Prince. I was bullied and perhaps so were you, and it was horrible. But should victims fight back? Some have, and were arrested for assault. Last year, Australian teen Casey Heynes body-slammed his longtime tormentor. The video went viral. Casey, hailed as a hero by thousands worldwide, was suspended. Witnesses and victims are advised to report bullies to authorities. This helps victims feel less alone. But does it also teach passivity?

Launching and convening the first-ever National Bullying Summit in March, Barack Obama announced that bullying is "not something we have to accept." True. But are anti-bullying campaigns sending the wrong message? And how might instant-documentation technology change that?

No child should hurt. But, urged to report incidents and people to authorities, we enter a moral morass. Where do we draw lines between tattling and telling, big brother and Big Brother, safety and Stasi, self-defense and free speech? We are beset these days by mixed signals, which sometimes stem from the same source: Passive resistance or stand up, fight back?

Bullies use mainly words, whose damage can't be measured, noun by devastating noun, as can the work of sticks and stones. Words are subjective. Words are protected by law, which also cannot control for the wildly variable points on each of our personal gauges at which teasing becomes torture and comments are crimes.

So: What to tell and how to tell it and to whom and when?

Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander (Morrow, 2009), says while that anti-bullying campaigns raise long-overdue awareness, they're largely counterproductive because they're inconsistent, spottily enforced and tend not to empower victims, whom she prefers to call "targets." Coloroso says few anti-bullying programs teach targets to stand firm.

"These programs advise kids to tell bullies, 'Please stop. That hurts.' Don't say that to a bully! They'll love it! Instead, we should teach targets to be aggressive. Assertion dissipates bullying. Passivity invites it."

But how assertive? That's another line we hesitate to draw. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold "were covered on a regular basis with ketchup and mustard by athletes at Columbine High. Nothing justifies what Eric and Dylan did, but we've got to look at the climate in which these things occur."

Coloroso also laments that most anti-bullying programs rely on authority figures -- teachers, administrators, counselors -- whose judgments are swayed by social status, religion, bias and politics.

"There has been a great failure on the part of us all, including kids, to discern the difference between normal, natural conflict and bullying. Natural conflict is a necessary part of living with neighbors, families and peers. But bullying has nothing to do with natural conflict. It doesn't even resemble conflict. It's about contempt for another human being. It's about making that human being into a cockroach. It's a short walk from there to genocide."

But because most anti-bullying programs use conflict-resolution methods rather than address contempt, they're useless or worse.

"Say a target tells her teacher that another girl has been bullying her. This teacher sits the kids down together, the bully and the target, and says, 'Come on. Let's be nice.' The target says her piece. Then the bully -- who, like many bullies, has high social status and is liked by adults -- says sweetly, 'I'm soooo soooorry. I had noooo ideeeea that I hurt your feelings. I hadnoooo ideeea that those nasty words got written on your locker or that you were locked out of that chatroom. What? I didn't trip you that day in class. You just fell over my foot.'

"The teacher tells the target, 'See? She's sorry! Now you can be friends!' If the target doesn't want to be friends, the teacher blames the target for being uncooperative. That's what conflict resolution amounts to," Coloroso says. "When a teacher sits two kids down, who's going to win? The best storyteller."

That's where the Bully Button comes in.

One touch sends the recorded event as an email.

"If it isn't opened, it goes on re-emailing the authorities again and again. It won't go unaddressed," says's Murphy. "It will relentlessly keep trying to get someone to respond to it.

"This creates a system of complete accountability where the principal and the parents will be asked to log in, so that the incident will change from being an open incident to an addressed incident."

The Bully Button, which Murphy hopes schools will adopt, is a capable 21st-century tool -- and a powerful weapon with shades of the Cold War. Making documentation an ever-present threat, the app begets a mutually assured destruction atmosphere.

"Say every kid has an iPhone with the Bully Button. After a while, you don't even know whether I have you on camera or audio. I might not. But I might. Do you really want to take that chance?

"When the Bully Button is an active system in enough people's hands, then it becomes like red-light cameras," explains Murphy, who was bullied in childhood because of his epilepsy. "Fewer and fewer people run red lights these days, because they're not sure which lights are equipped with surveillance cameras. Hopefully we'll reach that state with this app -- so when a bully thinks, 'I'm not sure whether this kid is documenting what I'm about to do,' he doesn't do it.

"We live in a society where we need to be comfortable with the fact that there are probably electronic eyes on us at all times. Like it or not, today's kids are the documented generation. With that fact come certain responsibilities. We're empowering this generation with the tools to record misdeeds.

"That's life with technology. That's life as we've created it."

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at
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