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Top or Flop? German Peer Rating App Accused Of Online Mobbing For Kids

SchülerVZ, a youth portal, has introduced a new app for young school children to rate their peers. While the company says it’s safe and fun, some experts and parents say it encourages the worst kind of child social pressures that can have lasting conseque

An image of the controversial
An image of the controversial
Johannes Kuhn

MUNICH -- Wolfgang Lünenbürger-Reidenbach is teed-off. The Hamburg blogger announced he was canceling his sons' accounts with the German "SchülerVZ" site. "SchülerVZ, it's time for you to go," he writes angrily. "As your options to boost traffic dwindle, all you can apparently think of is something this low."

What the blogger is referring to is the network's new web app for German school kids. "VZ-Pausenhof" makes it possible for children as young as 10 to rate their school mates. Three portraits of kids appear with the query "Top or Flop?" Next to the images is a Facebook-style "Like" button and a Thumbs Down button.

A certain amount of nastiness among school kids is par for the course. "Mobbing" – when nastiness toward a particular student is carried about by an entire group – is not unheard of either. The problem with the "SchülerVZ" app, according to Lünenbürger-Reidenbach, is that it provides both nastiness and mobbing an "official platform" and thus could bring emotional bullying to a whole new level. "It is stepping over a line that never should have been crossed," he says.

Johnny Haeusler, who writes the popular Spreeblick blog out of Berlin, agrees. "This new "Pausenhof" app is introducing something that every social network should do its best to avoid: giving users the possibility to be negative about other members," he says.

"Anybody who has ever seen how severely psychological pressure can affect a child, and observed the frightening ruthlessness, malevolence and technical savvy that children and adolescents use against each other with the deliberate intent of bringing someone down ... can only wonder if ‘SchülerVZ" possesses any sense of responsibility at all," Haeusler adds.

All fun and games until someone gets hurt

The VZ network's marketing head, Tobias Scheiba, says accusations that the company created a vehicle that could encourage mobbing are off base. In fact, the app was conceived to make mobbing virtually impossible, he insists.

Scheiba says that the only kids who can be rated are other "VZ-Pausenhof" users. What's more, members have the possibility of activating an Ignore function to keep unpleasant classmates out of the loop. And there's a button so that cases of abuse can immediately be reported to "SchülerVZ" customer services.

The number of flops is not available either to the child concerned or other "SchülerVZ" members, and according to Scheiba can't be found out via any other means either. So why a Flop button at all? The inspiration came from games like "Hot Or Not" that are very popular with school kids and can be played on other social networks and smart phone apps, he says.

Scheiba does admit that "first impressions of our app could be misleading" and says that in future the company will advertise the app in a more precise way so as to avoid misunderstandings.

The new app has also brought accusations that "SchülerVZ" was trying every means, in view of its sinking popularity, to keep its members involved in the platform. The portal, which belongs to the Georg von Holtzbrinck publishing group, is suffering from the huge popularity of Facebook. In November 2010 "SchülerVZ" recorded 364 million visits. A year later, the number was down to 84 million.

The company tried to sell the portal this summer, but there were no serious takers. In September, changes were made to the platforms and a future focus on apps – of which "VZ-Pausenhof" is one – was announced.

Read the original story in German

Photo - SchülerVZ

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