Schools in Chicagoland are up in arms and shutting down the social media app Yik Yak. Here are the real problems with Yik Yak and what you can do to respond.
What is Yik Yak?
Yik Yak is a four-month-old app for Android and Apple mobile devices that allows users to post text-only Yaks of up to 200 characters. The messages can be viewed by the 500 Yakkers who are closest to the person who wrote the Yak, as determined by GPS tracking. The app was designed for use by college students and states that users should be 17 and older.
Users are anonymous. Picture a localized Twitter account with no Twitter handles, no profiles, and no passwords. Users can upvote or downvote the posts, and if a post gets enough downvotes, it disappears.
“What happens on Yik Yak stays on Yik Yak.” This is one of the claims under the Description of Yik Yak on the iTunes preview page.
What Are The Real Problems With Yik Yak?
- Anonymity provides a dark cloak under which users ratchet up the cruelty and intensity of their messages, because they don’t need to say things face to face.
- In the context of Yik Yak, anonymity isn’t completely true. Students within a school community have a good idea who is behind cruel posts, because they are all part of the same social circles. Keith Robinson, Assistant Principal at Niles North High School, told me, “Even though it’s anonymous, the kids have a hunch about who is saying what. They are in each other’s business. Kids are savvy and they will set up situations that lead to conflicts.” Sometimes kids will exploit social drama by posing as each other.
- IP addresses provide a way for users to be tracked, in the case of criminal investigations, so anonymity is a dangerous concept. In Mobile County, Alabama, officers used location data from Yik Yak’s website to track down and arrest a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old who made bomb threats that shut down three schools for a day.
- Tweens and teens are eager to hang out in places where the adults do not go. As moms and dads increasingly spend time on Facebook and Twitter, the kids are looking for other places. Without any way of enforcing the ages of users, Yik Yak is basically hanging a sign on its front door inviting kids to come in.
- The content on Yik Yak is highly sexualized, making it very inappropriate for these younger users. Picture your 13-year-old reading Yaks such as “Everyone knows that last night Jane Doe sucked off six members of the football team. Anyone else want a piece of that slut? She will be at Joe’s party tonight. Give her some beer.”
- Kids are impulsive and sometimes they do stupid things. Our nation’s laws have not caught up with our digital technology, and this results in children being charged with terrorism, pornography, and other serious offenses when their online behaviors cross the line. For example, in the case of the 14 and 16-year-olds from Alabama, one of the kids has been charged with making terroristic threats.
What Happens on Yik Yak Does NOT Stay on Yik Yak, Despite Their Claims
- This is probably the most egregiously false claim on the entire description of Yik Yak. The number one lesson to teach our kids about social media is that what happens online affects life offline.
- As Dr. Robinson of Niles North High School told me, “Yik Yak, like many other media apps used by students, does have some legitimate communications between kids, but more often, it’s talking trash; it’s bullying, it’s cyberbullying. There have been times when cyberbullying has led to in-person verbal or physical altercations at school.”
- Just ask the kids who are ostracized and taunted in real life after being yakked about on Yik Yak. Just ask the kids who find a police officer at their door after making threats on Yik Yak. Just ask the girl who is terrified of being raped after learning that rumors about her are spreading on Yik Yak. What happens on Yik Yak does NOT stay on Yik Yak.
How Should You Respond to the Problems Posed By Yik Yak?
Yik Yak has been disabled in Chicagoland as schools try to get a handle on the cyberbullying and threats associated with Yik Yak, but it is critical to understand that the problems posed by Yik Yak are not unique to this app.
As quickly as parents and teachers shut down one social media app, another will arise. Whether you compare it to playing whack-a-mole or eliminating an ant problem one ant at a time, it is an uphill battle.
How can we deal with the root causes of the problem?
- Stay connected with your kids. Find out what apps and sites they use, and open a conversation about the content they encounter. Ask what types of comments they think are unacceptable, and then share your own thoughts. Approach it from a place of discussion rather than judgment, and they will be more willing to talk with you.
- Teach kids to SLOW DOWN in their social media communications. Things move fast on Yik Yak, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., and a ten-second post can lead to months of fallout. Before clicking publish, people should ask themselves, “How would I feel if this comment were about me? How would I feel if everyone I know finds out that I wrote this? Is it worth it?”
- Encourage kids to act as good digital citizens. You may be surprised to learn that kids actually engage in millions of productive, harmless, creative online interactions each year, and the overwhelming bad publicity of the cyberbullying is drowning out the amazing things they do online. If kids do see a cruel comment, remind them NOT to upvote it or forward it or like it or retweet it, because then they are acting like cyberbullies, even if they didn’t write the original comment.
- Make sure your kids have a responsible adult they feel safe confiding in, should they make a mistake online and need to get help. Sometimes kids use poor judgment and are too afraid to tell their parents. We want our kids to know that it is always better to find a grown-up who can help rather than engage in lies and deception to try to hide a mistake. Accountability and genuine remorse will always make the consequences a little easier.
- Finally, we must remember that the problems with Yik Yak are not confined to younger children. Even if you are over age seventeen, you are likely to encounter the same problems with an app like this. Disabling this app for kids in Chicago doesn’t change the fact that older teens and adults will misuse and abuse social media apps and cause real pain. EVERYONE needs to learn how to be a good digital citizen.
Tomorrow I will be giving a live interview on Fox News Chicago at 7:50 am CST to discuss Yik Yak. Tune in!
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.