Parents warned against popular chat app linked to cyberbullying

Schools are warning that children can anonymously “train” the SimSimi app to spout insulting messages about others

Parents warned against popular chat app linked to cyberbullying

File Photo. Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images

A number of schools around the country have sent out warnings to parents over a chat app that has been linked to cyberbullying.

Parents have received letters or text messages asking them to discuss the use of the SimSimi app with their children.

The app is based on a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and the user generated content – and schools are warning that children can anonymously “teach” it to spout insulting messages about other students.

It is designed so that when a user strikes up a conversation with the app’s AI “character,” it automatically scans for conversations it has had with other users and responds based on that information.

Speaking to Newstalk Drive this afternoon, Liam Challenor, PHD researcher at Dublin City University’s Anti Bullying Centre said children can "train" the app to bully other children by name.

“You would introduce yourself, say hello, ask questions and then the app would feed out responses - based on probability of conversations it has had in the past,” he said.

“You can also train it to deliver responses to other people and that is based on keywords.

“You could type in a fellow pupil’s name or a teacher’s name and then associate a response that SimSimi can replicate out to another person.”

The app which has been on the market since 2011 has become the most downloaded app in Ireland in recent days.

Anonymous insults

Mr Challenor said that although the app was not designed to insult other users, its anonymous nature has made it a problem in schools around the country.

"The difficulty is that there is that ability of anonymity," he said

“It is this theme of moral disengagement - when you are not connected to the person that is on the other end of your communication.

"A bully doesn’t see the effect they are having and is therefore disengaged to the consequences, the emotional or psychological or physical responses that they are having on the person that they are targeting,” he said.

Mr Challenor said the schools have been “very proactive” about the situation - warning that parents should take a vested interest in the technology that their children are using.

“Certainly the message for parents would be that they need to be having open conversations with their children and familiarise themselves with both the apps and the social media spaces that their children are on to prevent cyberbullying behaviours,” he said.

You can listen back to Liam Challenor's conversation with Newstalk's Sarah McInerney here: