TAMPA — As Michele Joel delivered a PowerPoint presentation about her latest app, My Social Sitter, a group of Tampa mothers nodded in positive affirmation.
The app helps teach social media etiquette to preteens and teens by preventing negative posts from reaching the Internet. It scans Twitter tweets — and will eventually work with other social media — and stops them from going out, sending a notice to the parents. Joel explained that intercepting errant posts can help children avoid school discipline and future adverse consequences such as college admission red flags.
She also said her new software is an effective solution to the online bullying issue.
"People post things online without thinking all the time," Joel said. "Once a message is posted, it doesn't delete. A post that may seem innocent can actually have a large impact."
Joel's presentation offered a cautionary tale to the mothers: a school suspends a girl who retaliates against a fellow student with a harshly worded tweet. But Melissa Anthony actually has lived it.
Anthony was in shock upon learning that her daughter would be suspended for making a rude comment on a social media site about one of her classmates. Anthony wishes she would have had My Social Sitter then, and she uses it now.
"This app is a necessity if you have kids," said Anthony, an Ohio mother of three. "One tweet can ruin your life. You can't take anything back the second it sends out. We need to teach our kids about social media skills."
Joel, who has an MBA from the University of Tampa and now lives in Tucson, Ariz., returned to her former home last week for a series of informational meetings with parents. One of the reasons she created and champions the app is because she was bullied when she was younger.
"This was before the Internet," Joel said. "It impacted me for a long time."
My Social Sitter — and its companion app for adults, My Social Standard — works in six different languages and is connected to the user's social media account. When a message is posted, it scans the message using the program's algorithms to filter negative language. The administrator can customize the software to remove any other language he or she deems inappropriate.
If appropriate, the user's message is immediately posted. If not, the post will not send, and will instead notify the administrator or the parent that the message was rejected. The software is available for desktop computers or as an app for the iPhone and Android phones.
"There's nothing else like this," Joel said, noting that other software monitors posts after the fact. "This is the only software on the market that works in real time. It is a solution that is proactive and cost-efficient."
The program launched Sept. 1. An account is currently priced at $34.99 for a year. Parents who sign up with a school discount will pay $24.99. My Social Sitter also has actively reached out to schools with victims of cyberbullying as well as nonprofit antibullying organizations such as Stand for the Silent, Bullysafe USA and the Tyler Clementi Foundation.
Joel says that reaching out to schools and organizations and spreading the word could make a world of difference for the victims of bullying.
The Tampa mothers, who met Joel at the CoCreativ co-work office Oct. 8, generally liked the app, but wondered if it will eventually monitor incoming texts and tweets. That aspect is in development and expected within a month.
"My perspective is if she does it two-ways — incoming texts as well as outgoing — it will be even better," said Tien Shein, a South Tampa mother of three. "And she has to market it to the pre middle school or early middle school kids, because I can't imagine my 13-year-old, who is already unleashed into the social media world, doing this.
"I can't put him back in."
Melissa Anthony whole-heartedly believes that this tool will be the key to putting a stop to cyberbullying.
"This app has taken on a large problem," Anthony said. "I think my Social Sitter, My Social Standard will take out a large chunk of the cyberbullying that still continues today."
This software also rewards children when they write positive tweets and posts. Positive posts are converted to tokens. Once the children acquire enough tokens, they can receive gift cards to shop at businesses like Apple and Nike.
My Social Standard works as an adult version and may be just as needed, given the recent rash of people who have lost their jobs because of inappropriate posts. Investor Paul Durgin uses the program as a personal tool to monitor what he posts, tweets, and retweets on social media. As an active user of social media, Durgin says he would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to his online reputation.
"Social media is so powerful," Durgin said. "With that power comes great risk. I have seen a lot of people whose careers have been destroyed because of social media. I know I have to keep my own reputation as well as the reputation of my company."
For Joel, My Social Sitter and My Social Standard are a way to make a difference in the world.
"I wanted to create a tool that would allow people to better themselves when using social media," said Joel, once the creative force behind a University of South Florida safety alert system, called MoBull Messenger. "I have hopes that My Social Sitter and My Social Standard will combat cyberbullying, and empower children, parents and employers."
Contact Virginia Barreda at [email protected] Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.