What a 13-year-old Internet Guru Can Teach Us About Cyberbullying

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was 20 when he launched his social networking site. Daniel Singer, creator of the new site YouTell, is 13.

Zuckerberg's influence has created new opportunities for a generation raised on the Internet. (To wit, Daniel pitched YouTell to a San Francisco start-up veteran from his L.A. bedroom.) On the flipside, those opportunities for self-expression can lead to dangerous, sometimes tragic outcomes.

I first heard about YouTell--a site that lets users request feedback from select group of anonymous peers ("Do you like my haircut?" "Am I being a good friend?")-- the day after tragic news of bullied teen Amanda Todd's suicide surfaced. The idea of a site designed to provide anonymous criticism seemed like a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

But because YouTell was developed by a 13-year-old (along with Daniel's dad Uri Singer, and four other grown-ups) the site is more attuned to both the desires and concerns of the Facebook generation.

For example, Daniel insisted on privacy settings that would prevent gang-up bullying and allow users to control the visibility of answers featured on the site. This was something he had to fight for while the rest of his team wavered, according to his dad. At the same time, he crafted the site to feed the need for feedback, something that has enraptured young web users since earlier sites Q&A sites like FormSpring became popular.

In fairness, Daniel isn't like most eighth graders. He's got a LinkedIn page most college graduates would envy. He quotes the tech blog Gizmodo, attends programming conventions and describes his site as ideal for "busy single moms" as well as kids. Daniel understands things I didn't as a 13-year-old, in part because he's smarter than I was, but also because he's been raised with the world's most comprehensive encyclopedia, the Internet.

The day after YouTell launched last week, Daniel spent his free period between classes on the phone with Yahoo! Shine. I asked him what he thinks the biggest threats kids face online and whether adults are doing enough to keep them safe.

Shine: How did you come up with the idea for YouTell?
Daniel Singer: One day my mom had some trouble with a friend who was always late. She wanted to tell that person why she was upset but she didn't know how. Two days later I thought of how many people have this problem and how it could be fixed with a social network tool.

S: Just to put things into perspective, you were eight at the time. Did you really think this site would come to life five years later?
DS: I sent my ideas to my dad [a film producer with friends in the tech industry] and we basically went off from there. He's helped keep my idea in line and taught be you can always make things more perfect.

S: One of the ideas behind YouTell--asking peers for criticism--seems like a potential flytrap for bullies. What is your site doing to prevent that from happening?
DS: This is one of the big things I thought about. I knew people sometimes have bad intentions or maybe they just don't know how their honesty could affect another person. One of things we have on the site is a built-in "phrase-sketcher." It will analyze comments and source-out foul language, so that the user can't post something mean and administrators are notified immediately.

S: But not everything hurtful requires bad language. What if kids ask about their appearance but aren't ready to hear the answer?
DS: If you open yourself to responses that you yourself might take too seriously, you may not be mentally ready. But you will receive good feedback if you are mentally ready. When I've used the site, it helped me to hear what some friends had noticed about me.

S: Like what?
DS: I asked my friends what people were really thinking about Obama [after the first debate] and I got a lot of responses from friends that changed my outlook on the whole election. But I also asked about my physical appearance.

S: And what did your friends tell you?
DS: Well I actually found out I had this sore on my right elbow that I didn't notice because you can't really look at that part of your elbow. So that was helpful.

S: What do so many kids ask about their appearance on the Internet?
PS: I'm not really sure about social psyche behind knowing how you look. I do think a better question than 'how do I look' is to ask about something you can change like 'did I get a good haircut?'

S: What is the biggest misconception adults have about cyberbullying?
DS: What I think really happens is that people attacked by bullies online tend to get hurt by those same bullies in their physical lives too. They make jokes about that person at school and it just carries over to the Internet. It's kind of like in the olden days when bullies would show up at other people's houses to taunt them.

S: So a lot of times people know those bullies in real life?
DS: Yes, which is why we have verification system on our site, so if someone you don't like got a hold of your account and wanted to ruin your day, they can't. They have to know certain personal information that you decide on in order to answer questions and people can't see what other people post for answers, which is a lot of times why bullies post things.

S: They want an audience to perform their bullying?
DS: Yes. So if everyone can't see what they are saying they probably won't bother.

S: Your generation is growing up with public profiles they may not be able to erase as adults. Is that scary?
DS: There's a great article on Gizmodo about how the Internet is not temporary, and everything could be set in stone. And I think people need to get that message more. Even though a person feels like he is anonymous, if you do something bad, or that breaks the law, or is mean, you will be found and legal action can be taken.

S: If more kids knew they could get in trouble do you think there would be less public bullying?
DS: I think if the point was more spread across to kids it would happen less, or maybe not at all. If people really knew they could be found by authorities on the site when they post something hurtful anonymously, they might not do it. I know for site owners this is a lot of extra work, but it's their responsibility to protect users.

S: So sites, not just educators and parents, should be more transparent as authority figures. That makes a lot of sense.
DS: Yes and the best thing social networking sites can do is to invest in filters like Phrase-Sketcher to make it harder for people to post negative comments.

S: Do you think negative comments and cyber-bullying are the biggest fears kids have about the Internet these days?
DS: I think the fear for most genuine web users is that they're doing something wrong or that don't know how something they post now will affect them in the future. Let's say a kid my age did something really stupid on Facebook, to point legal action has to be involved, that could really come back and hurt them when they try to go to college or get a job someday.

S: Do you think adults get what your generation is going through?
DS: I don't think they understand the decision-making problems our generation has. Kids our age now are forced to make big decisions and they lack decision-making skills you get from experience. Twenty years ago kids didn't have to make decisions about sending important emails and posting things online that might not go away. I think that's why insecurities and questioning behavior surfaces in the first place.

S: Obviously this is something you've thought a lot about. How do you protect yourself from bad decision-making, particularly now as a company man?
DS: Well, whenever I send email for something important I ask my dad to read it first.

S: I'm sure you've heard this before, but you're a very smart kid.