Yik Yak banned as schools grapple with toxic anonymous social chat

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Social networks

Yik Yak logoImagine you're a student in high school. You're standing outside the building before you go to class, checking postings on your mobile phone.

You notice some kids standing over by the bushes, snickering and stealing glances at you. You keep your head down, looking at your phone.

A posting comes up. It's anonymous, but you know that whoever wrote it is standing quite close to you. The anonymous poster's written about a yellow shirt and how butt-ugly the person is who's wearing it.

Your face flushes. You're wearing a yellow shirt. You're the one who's getting bullied.

Welcome to Yik Yak.

I made up that scenario's particulars, but not the essence. Bullying of students is getting ramped up across the US as this new mobile app delivers nasty insults, posted behind the coward's favorite shield of anonymity.

Described as a cross between SnapChat and Twitter, Yik Yak is a location-based app that creates an anonymous social chat room of up to 500 nearby users who connect through GPS tracking on their mobile phones.

One of its co-founders, Brooks Buffington, told CNN that Yik Yak has, within its first four months, already racked up a few hundred thousand users - mainly in Southeast/East coast college campuses.

In fact, the application supposedly restricts use to those over the age of 17, in acknowledgement of the idea that it takes a bit of maturity to post comments anonymously about the people and things around us without it turning into a YouTube-comments-like toxic waste dump.

I say "supposedly" because there's no way to prevent somebody under the age of 17 from signing up, as parents have pointed out.

Cyberbullying is not the only problem with the anonymous social chat app. There are other incidents:

  • A high school in the city of Marblehead, in Massachusetts, was evacuated twice in one day on 4 March 2014 due to unspecified threats posted on Yik Yak.
  • A middle school in Decatur, Alabama was locked down over threats of violence posted to Yik Yak. According to the Chicago Tribune, an Alabama teenager was arrested in February 2014 after authorities said they tracked a shooting threat made on the service to his phone.
  • A school in San Clemente, California, was locked down on 6 March 2014 after an anonymous bomb threat was posted on Yik Yak.

The free app has also been banned in multiple Chicago schools, as educators warn parents that students are using the service to threaten and malign others.

Kids on phone, courtesy of ShutterstockThe Chicago Tribune reports that "at least four" Chicago high schools have sent home warnings about Yik Yak to parents in the past few weeks, with principals asking that parents remove the app from their children's phones and keep them from reinstalling it.

Several districts have also banned Yik Yak from their networks, though they admit this is a symbolic move that doesn't provide any actual, technological barrier for students to access the app through their phones.

Yik Yak's responding to the criticism by disabling it in some areas, including the entire city of Chicago until the firm fixes the problem of keeping it out of the hands of high schoolers and middle schoolers.

Buffington told CNN that grade schoolers weren't supposed to be using it to begin with:

One of the things we were planning to do is to essentially geo-sense every high school and middle school in America, so if they try to open the app in their school, it will say something like 'no, no no, looks like you are trying to open the app on a high school or middle school and this is only for college kids,' and it will disable it and the app won't work.

That will completely eliminate the problem we have been seeing, so we geo-sensed the entire city of Chicago until we get this fix up. We are working on getting third-party help to get the fix in place as soon as possible.

In the meantime, parents can always look into software that controls what apps their children download. We've written several articles about setting up parental controls on your child's device.

And please remind your children that what they post online isn't anonymous, no matter what an app like Yik Yak promises. Here's 10 tips from Safer Internet Day 2014 to get your kids thinking before they engage in any online activity.

The fact that police have so far traced threats of violence to at least one teenager's phone should be proof of that.

Finally, here's some advice from the 2013 Anti-Bullying Week if you suspect your child is being cyberbullied.

Image of kids on phone courtesy of Shutterstock.

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12 Responses to Yik Yak banned as schools grapple with toxic anonymous social chat

  1. Blake · 136 days ago

    A new playground for trolls.

  2. Nicole · 136 days ago

    these apps are also being used to cyber bully adults/parents. There are more out there and they need to all be banned. My husband and I have received horrid messages and been harassed via another such app called pinger. We consumers, the press and the government need to make this stop. These companies are enabling preditors and bullies. We all have a right to privacy and the right to protect our families

    • Government make it stop? Be careful what ask the government to do. Would you like them to come after people for their thoughts next? . . .How are these words spoken anonymously hurting you? How about you delete yik yak and not read them. People SHOULD be allowed to express themselves even if you don't like what they have to say. The other option is to control and force your way of life on them. Just remember though, if you give the power over to the government to decide what is acceptable. What happens when your enemies rise to government power and positions and they get their hand at the powerful controls you setup.

    • Era · 127 days ago

      Pinger isn't very anonymous. It's a program that lets you send SMS messages via internet, IM other Pinger users, or pay to make calls. If you are using the program, then the person sending you messages is using the program and knows your Pinger username/number or the mobile number associated with your account, or is on a mobile and knows your Pinger number- which generally means that YOU texted THEM first. If you're not using the service, you would be receiving regular SMS messages from a Pinger assigned mobile number, from someone who knows your mobile number.

      I used to use it, but they had a policy about revoking numbers that hadn't been used in 30 days, and assigning a new number to users the next time they logged in. So I switched to Text+

  3. yeah because obviously no one over 17 is nasty or a bully. sheesh
    another appalling app - I'm all for the ability to appear to be anon online but no problem with the app/site etc knowing who I am in case I misbehave. I think that's a sensible approach.

  4. John · 136 days ago

    You can write to yik yak and have them geo fence your school. That should take care of the some of the problem

  5. Anonymous · 136 days ago

    Trying to geo-sense schools could be a problem, since GPS can be way off. Where i used to live, GPS on my phone would show me to be at a Staples office supply store about 1/2 mile away.

  6. John · 135 days ago

    Isn't the obvious answer not to use social media with such strong anonymous and antisocial content? No-one is forced to sign up to Yik Yak. We should address the self-esteem problem where kids think they have to be online, have online friends and use the right apps. Should we ban blackboards in schools because bullies can leave anonymous messages on them?

  7. Guy · 135 days ago

    I can see that Yik Yak could be useful for trolls and bullies, but why would a normal human being want to use this app? If you're not a sociopath, what's it good for?

  8. o, I love social media and their users, they use them to inflate their egos and the bullies seem to deflate them, or just stick a needle in the ego balloon. It's all in the mind ... If I tell you that you are an idiot, it's up to you to believe such nonsens. You are NOT ...

  9. megatrout · 135 days ago

    In the meantime, parents could try to stop blaming everyone except themselves. Your kids are assholes, take some goddamn responsibility.

  10. I honestly believe that people should have the right to use this app if they want. its not a matter of if they are bullying each other through it (because honestly they will bully each other even if they don't have an app), it is a matter of peoples freedom to say what they want. It's a matter of people having the right to free speech and people who are overly sensitive to being told they are ugly or wrong; wanting to be able to silence those that speak against them.

    remember "if you cant take it don't dish it out" ,this goes out to all of those who treat people horrible and then get offended when someone speaks out against them.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.