Burnbook: Real life consequences

Published: May. 1, 2015 at 6:43 PM CDT|Updated: May. 1, 2015 at 10:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - There's a warning about a new app, and deputies in Louisiana have a message for parents and teens.

The app is called Burnbook. We've talked to investigators in Louisiana and across the country who are concerned about what teens are using it for. One social media expert says it serves no other purpose but to give kids a platform to cyber bully or make criminal threats against others.

"We got word from our school resource officers that there was a concern about a new mobile app called Burnbook in which students were sending harassing messages and potentially terrorizing messages," said Bill Davis with the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office.

Here's how it works. You can join a school community and make what teens might think are anonymous posts about whoever or whatever they want. We looked in the New Orleans area and found several high schools and colleges are listed. But while the app may just be trickling into our area, it caught on fast with kids in North Louisiana.

"We wanted to let them know this was not an opportunity to think that you are going to be anonymous and say things that are going to cross over into a criminal element. You know, a few years ago Louisiana instituted, enacted some laws against cyber bullying, and we're going to take them seriously," said Davis.

The Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office says if a threat is made, deputies can track you down. We're told the app is still active there and authorities are closely monitoring what is being said on it.

But there were more serious consequences for other school districts across the country. Police in Princeton, Texas, tell FOX 8 News that a teenager posted on Burnbook that there would be a school shooting at a high school. That threat led to a school lockdown and the teen being charged with making a terroristic threat.

In Lebanon, Oregon - the same story. Police there told us they had to bring in extra patrols back in March, lock down a high school and arrest a student after investigators say she made a threat on Burnbook saying there would be a shooting at her school. Several other threats on the app followed.

We also obtained a letter written by the Torrance, Calif., Unified School District to the creator of Burnbook asking that he remove any of its schools from the app after threats were made.

Another letter went out to Torrance parents. It asked them to have their children delete the app because it was causing "significant disruption at Torrance high schools," and "students are using this app and other social media to engage in cyber bullying."

That's why Burnbook is now on the radar of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office. Deputy Brennan Matherne says they've recently had a problem with a similar app called Street Chat.

"Street Chat at least tried to hide the fact that they weren't potentially advertising students to go on and cyber bully," said Matherne. "Our students clearly caught on. The biggest issue with these, Yik Yak, and a lot of these other apps that students have been using is that they're location-based, and in some cases, as Street Chat or Burnbook, they're actually school-based. So there is no guess work of what your audience is as opposed to Facebook or Twitter."

And if the name of the Burnbook app sounds familiar to you this may be why.

"Just like in the movie Mean Girls, the original intent and purpose of the 'burnbook' [in the movie] was nothing good, and the original intent for this is, I don't think anything good either. Why would [the app's creator] use the name Burnbook?" said Tulane University social media expert Ashley Nelson.

Nelson sees several problems with Burnbook.

"The difference between Burnbook and something like Yik Yak is you know Yik Yak - they got a lot of complaints from schools and they geo-fenced it off so it doesn't even go to high schools. It is now centered to colleges," Nelson said.

And while Nelson says it's not as popular with teens as say Instagram or Snap Chat, parents should still be informed about it.

"Get rid of it," said Nelson. "If your child has it on their phone, there is nothing good that could come of it. Give them something better to use. Give them a better tool."

The best tool, she says, is teaching your children how to use social media and use it responsibly. Nelson adds that the app is not the problem, it's how people choose to use it. And if it's not Burnbook, she says it will be something else down the road.

"I think that's where we need to go as opposed to singling a certain app out over another, because trust me - there are other replacement apps that they can go to instead of Burnbook," Nelson said.

And, for teens using it, law enforcement says the biggest message they want to get out is if you wouldn't say it in person, don't say it online.

"If you are going to make statements against someone on a social media platform such as Burnbook, those actions will have consequences. You think you are anonymous, we will find you, and if it need be, we will press charges," Davis said.

We contacted Burnbook but they have not responded to our requests for comment. The app has been very controversial across the country. It's no longer available on iTunes or Google Play. What's unclear at this time is whether the app has been disabled altogether, or if new users just aren't allowed to download it. But the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office says even though it's been pulled, they're still concerned because those who have already downloaded it may still have access to it, and they fear there may be a similar app to replace it in no time.

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