Yik Yak: The Latest App Misused for Cyberbullying

While social media was meant to bring people together in a positive way, some social media apps have made headlines for causing harm as an outlet for cyberbullying and other user abuses.

The most recent app causing concern for parents and schools is Yik Yak. This app was created to be a “virtual bulletin board” for college communities to post thoughts, events, or ideas based on geographic area. Like many other apps that began with altruistic intention, many exploit some feature of the app for ill intent.

In the case of Yik Yak, students are exploiting the fact that one can anonymously post hurtful content about another individual without suffering negative consequences for posting the content.

This feature has allowed Yik Yak has become a platform for cyberbullying among teens and adolescents. High school and middle schools all over the nation, including the Tri-state, are struggling with how to deal with the consequences of postings on Yik Yak, such as malicious rumors, threats of bodily harm and even bomb threats. So much so, that the app has been banned from thousands of schools across the nation.

It makes sense that teens are attracted to social media. They tend to gather places, like on social media, where their peers are, and where they can meet new friends and talk about things that matter most to them. Most importantly, social media is an outlet away from parents. For these reasons, Yik Yak is not the first app, nor will it be the last, that is being abused by teens and tweens. Like Yik Yak, other social media apps such as Whisper, Confide, Ask.fm, Tele Gram and Secret embrace anonymity: no name, no login, no trace, no need for responsibility.

While it is beneficial for teens to make social connections, it is important for parents to understand what is happening in this social sphere. For parents this includes monitoring online use and talking to your children. Why? This age group often lacks the maturity to understand the full consequences of their online actions in these open forums. What can parents do?

Here are some proactive approaches which can help you attempt to restrict or monitor your child’s use of social apps:

  • Ask to see the apps on your child’s phone, open them and look through their profiles, items they have posted, etc.
  • Check the age restrictions: Many social media apps are for 13 or older, and some, like Yik Yak, are for teens ages 17 and older. If you find that your child is using one of these apps and you disagree, notify the app or web master of the app to get their account cancelled.
  • Set up profiles in these apps and link yourself to their profiles.
  • Use a social media monitoring service such as UKnowKisa, SocialShield, or MyMobileWatchDog to help you keep an eye on what your child is doing online.
  • Use parental controls: Phones come with parental controls that help restrict access to websites and apps, and can restrict the installation of apps and in-app purchases.
  • Know your child’s passwords: Let your child know that you would never go into her phone and look without her permission unless you were concerned for her safety – but it is always good to know your child’s passwords just in case. If you try a password and it does not work, make sure they know that this can have consequences.

While monitoring your child’s social activity is important, please also keep in mind that some children and teens react differently to restrictions. For some children, placing restrictions – or even banning social apps – may cause even more problems for you, such as your child finding another a way around the limitations.

Also, parents will want keep in mind their child’s expectations for privacy. Balancing your child’s safety with their expectations for privacy is not easy. So, parents will want to have honest discussions about their actions to address this issue. In these discussions, be clear that you recognize their concerns for privacy, explain your concerns for their safety, and be clear how the goal of the actions you are taking are to protect them, not to punish them.

Social media isn’t going away, and if restriction is the only strategy used they most likely will not learn how to use social media in a responsible way. So another approach is to talk to your child and teach him/her how to be respectful of others and themselves, in other words, teach your child online etiquette.

Here are some suggestions for talking to your child about online etiquette:

  • Educate yourself. Learn about the apps your child may be using. Your teen probably thinks you are very disconnected to their very-connected world. Use this as a talking point. Say something like “I read an article that yik yak has been causing some problems in schools here, are you using that app? Have you seen any problems with it?”
  • Talk about how online communication is not the same as face-to-face communication. We may say something online but because people cannot see our body language or hear the tone of our voice it can easily be taken the wrong way. It is very possible that your child is not aware that what they are posting online is making a negative impression.
  • Work with your child to establish a set of “rules” they will follow while online. Respecting others. No talking negatively. Treat others how you want to be treated. Check to make sure they are living up to their own expectations about how they will act online
  • Explain the consequences. Talk to them about it and be clear that information on the internet can be shared at any time. Would they want their grandmother reading what they are putting out there? Do they understand potential colleges and employers look at social media? Help them understand that nothing is ever “deleted”.
  • Explain what cyberbullying is. Ask them if they have seen cyberbullying. Some teens may not realize what they are witnessing is cyberbullying. Use these instances to teach them about the consequences of this. How would they feel if they were the victim? How would they handle it if this happened to them? Help them come up with an action plan for how they would deal with cyberbullying. Explain that you would like for part of their action plan to include bringing it to your attention. Because cyber bulling can be silent – taking place on a mobile device – it makes it difficult for parents to recognize the problem and help.

In the end, I suggest doing a mix of monitoring and teaching. Teens need to feel a sense of autonomy and if you restrict their online use too much, they will most likely try hiding it or finding ways around your monitoring. Teaching responsible online behaviors is a gradual process involving supervision and communication. It can be challenging because apps quickly change and teens are quick to pick up on new technologies. Remember to be patient with both yourself and your child as this open line of communication may be new to the both of you.

There are many resources available out there to help you and your child navigate this process. On our own website, The Girls Guide to End Bullying, we have a parent manual as well as a cyberbullying module for teens. Other helpful websites include medialiteracy.com, mediasmarts.ca, and wiredsafety.org.

Halley Estridge

About the Author: Halley Estridge

Halley Estridge, is a clinical research coordinator in psychology and the project manager for the Girls Guide to End Bullying program. She works with local high schools on a weekly basis with teens, teachers and staff regarding bullying.

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