Teaching Technology

Banning an iPhone app is the wrong way to educate kids

Critics have reacted angrily to a new iPhone application that uses facial recognition software to rate attractiveness of people by analyzing symmetry and other features. The app issues a rating from one to 10 on its “ugly meter,” with a score of one being the most desirable. Citing the possibility that, in the hands of children and adolescents, the application may become a tool for cyberbullying, some have called for the application to be removed from the iTunes store or restricted from being purchased by minors.

Cyberbullying is certainly a serious issue about which children should be educated, but banning the application would, in this instance, be an inappropriate way of teaching through censorship. Instead, parents and teachers should look to more substantive ways of teaching students about bullying and what constitutes responsible technology use.

Censoring content is sometimes necessary in particular situations, but the existence of the Ugly Meter application is simply not one of them. As stated by its creators, Ugly Meter is all in good fun: The humorously snarky messages that the ratings generate—a rating of 9.4 merits the comment, “You look like you ran a 100-yard dash in a 90-yard gym”—strike a joking, rather than malicious, tone. Moreover, the application does not include anything that is traditionally considered inappropriate for children, such as images or references to sex or violence.

Although some people understandably might be offended by this type of application that has no meaningful use and carries with it a high potential for hurting feelings, making a fuss about it does little to address the root cause of concern—the high incidence of bullying among students and the way technology is increasingly used to facilitate such bullying. However, if we expend energy attacking everything that could possibly be deemed distasteful, we risk diluting efforts to target truly offensive behavior. The Ugly Meter application is not problematic on the same scale as other misuses of technology and should not be lumped together with more serious cases.

The existence of the Ugly Meter application does make clear the increased need to educate kids about technology as the age at which individuals are exposed to the Internet and applications steadily becomes younger. Parents should ultimately be the ones monitoring the type of material their children are exposed to, as they can grant or forbid access to new technology. In the school environment, educators should also look out for their students’ well-being.

The openness of the Internet and the rapid progress of technological development mean that there could be a hundred different potentially dangerous or offensive applications or technological creations tomorrow that we would not have anticipated today. Educating children about every new technological development would therefore be an impossible and pointless task. Thus, rather than focusing on specifics, educators should stress the importance of teaching students guiding principles that would result in respectful and responsible technology use overall.

For better or for worse, children and adolescents will likely encounter technologies as problematic as, or more problematic than, the iPhone Ugly Meter application at some point during their lives. Empowering children to make thoughtful judgments about such potentially harmful items is more valuable in the long term than hiding them away.