Everything a Parent Needs to Know About YIK YAK

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In 2015, a 17-year-old high school student in Atlanta, Georgia, named Melissa Long attempted to commit suicide while going through a difficult time in her life. Luckily, she recovered. When she returned to school, however, she became the target of a relentless bullying campaign on an online app that allows users to post anything they want without revealing their identities.

Behind the cover of anonymity, some of her classmates posted hateful messages, including one reference to her suicide attempt that encouraged her to “go ahead and do it.”

The campaign of abuse made her a victim all over again. Her teachers tried to intervene, with little success. There was little they could do to curtail the use of the free app that anyone can download on their smartphone.

The app used to target Elizabeth was Yik Yak.

What is Yik Yak?

Yik Yak is a location-based mobile social media app that was designed to give users a glimpse at what people in their geographic area are saying. Originally created for college students on college campuses, it continues to gain traction at universities — but it is also being used inappropriately by younger teens in high school and middle school.

Its founders hoped to “democratize” social media by eliminating user profiles. Anonymity, they hoped, would mean that all posts would be valued purely on merit — as opposed to high-profile people like celebrities and athletes dominating discussions through their enormous social media followings.

Yik Yak works on a bulletin board format. Its founder and CEO said Yik Yak was designed to mimic “a city’s central plaza or campus bulletin board.” Posts are called “yaks” and the act of submitting posts is called “yakking.”

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CNN compares it to a cross between Twitter and Snapchat — but without the accountability of identity. Yaks are posted anonymously, and are then voted up or down by other anonymous users within a 1.5 mile radius. This hyper locality makes it ideal for college campuses — but also poses a potential danger to teens who may be targeted by users close to them. No photos are allowed, and those who author popular posts receive points. Posts that get a lot of “down” votes disappear.

The Potential Dangers of Yik Yak

Of all the messaging and chat apps that have parents concerned, Yik Yak is in a category all by itself. One psychiatrist calls the app “the most dangerous form of social media I’ve ever seen” and “the ultimate tool for bullies.”

Yik Yak’s anonymous format provides a hiding place for young people to make incendiary comments — from mocking the body weight of fellow students to threatening to shoot up the school — that they wouldn’t ordinarily make if people knew it was coming from them. Schools in Chicago, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts have all reported serious disruptions related to threats of shootings, bombings or other acts of violence made through Yik Yak.

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More frequently, Yik Yak gives young users a platform to spread rumors or gossip about fellow students who don’t know why they’re being targeted or who is behind the attack.

When the New York Times sampled a Yik Yak dialogue related to a college course, it found that “There were dozens of posts, most demeaning, many using crude, sexually explicit language and imagery.”

A Stanford psychiatrist told the Times that the hyper-local nature of the application adds a new layer of anxiety, reality and danger to threats and bullying attacks. “You don’t know where the aggression is coming from,” he told the paper. “But you know it’s very close to you.”

What People Are Saying About Yik Yak

  • One student told Forbes, “You don’t have to think anything through before you post. It’s word vomit. No one cares if you’re telling the truth.”
  • A law professor and author at the University of Maryland told the New York Times that “Yik Yak is the Wild West of anonymous social apps. It is being increasingly used by young people in a really intimidating and destructive way.”
  • “It’s so easy for anyone in any emotional state to post something, whether that person is drunk or depressed or wants to get revenge on someone,” a Middlebury College sophomore named Jordan Seman told the New York Times. “And then there are no consequences.”
  • A high school principal told ABC News that “When you write something nasty, all of a sudden everyone has seen it. It’s terribly hurtful, embarrassing and leaves scars.”

But the most powerful words are from the victims themselves:

“The app has turned into a haven for bullying, threats, and hate speech, mostly focused on kids in middle school and high school. I know this, because it happened to me.” — Yik Yak bullying victim Elizabeth Long

Elizabeth Long refused to be a victim a second time. She began a petition challenging the founders of Yik Yak to create accountability, to institute a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment, to enforce the app’s age restriction guidelines and to add moderators to spot and remove offensive posts.

It started with just one signature — her own. By the time the app’s founders took notice in January 2015, the petition had gained more than 77,000 supporters. She declared “victory” when the founders met with her personally and seemed to take her concerns seriously.

Measures have been taken to ban Yik Yak on school campuses, or restrict Yik Yak in the areas around schools:

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To some, however, it isn’t enough. Nearly a year later, however, Elizabeth told a newspaper she believed “they were full of empty promises and really just wanted to get my petition removed.”

For parents, this serves as a warning: middle school and high school students should not be using Yik Yak, period. Talk to your child about why Yik Yak can be so harmful, and why anonymous comments online don’t just stay online — they can have a terrible, painful real world impact on those they target.

Continue to follow us on Teenology to get more tips and advice on how to keep your teen safe!

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