Locked Down by Yik Yak

Last month, while I was interviewing a high school student in one of my school districts, our conversation was interrupted by the announcement that the school was on lockdown.

For two long hours, my delightful companion and I spoke in whispers about our families and her college plans. She was calm and collected, occasionally checking her smartphone for texts from classmates and reassuring her parents by text that she was safe. I asked her what might have precipitated the lockdown, which ended only after a police officer knocked on our locked office door and set us free.

“Yik Yak,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”

Yik Yak is the latest in a long litany of anonymous social apps, this one providing users with a way to have Twitter-like conversations with others within a 1.5-mile geographic radius. Like a location-based bulletin board, Yik Yak permits users to “upvote” or “downvote” others’ posts.

But since the app’s inception only a year ago, some of the comments posted by its young users have included serious threats and persistent bullying, resulting in lockdowns, evacuations and even arrests on college campuses and at high schools around the country.

Yik Yak was intended, say its creators, to provide college students with a way to converse with each other about campus life in an unofficial and unfiltered way. But as is often the case when an app is anonymous, problems have plagued its use.

In fact, in a digital landscape that includes the often-maligned and anonymous Ask.fm, Whisper and 4chan, the Washington Post wrote recently that “perhaps none has proved so consistently problematic — so apparently irredeemable — as Yik Yak.”

Because of the bad publicity, Yik Yak creators now say that posts flagged as “inappropriate” by two or more users will be removed, and are said to be working on a tool that will notify them when posts come directly from a high school or middle school.

But social apps – good and bad — will continue to be a moving target for school officials and communications professionals. We need to be ready to respond. Here are some tips from my own recent experience:

  • Ask your technology team if a “geo-fence” can be established around your high schools and middle schools to block troublesome apps.
  • It’s never too early to send a letter or an email out to parents, informing them about the latest app making headlines. If schools in Chicago or Marblehead, Mass., are being locked down, the problem is likely to reach your doorstep.
  • Remind parents and students that even “anonymous” comments and posts can be tracked by law enforcement, particularly if a post can be interpreted as a threat.
  • Include discussions about the dangers of anonymous apps in your digital citizenship classes and at parents’ nights. Enlist the help of your PTAs.
  • Invite experts on the use of anonymous social media and apps to make presentations to your school community. In another of my districts next week, we’re hosting cyberbullying expert Josh Gunderson, who will speak to students during the day and to parents in the evening.
  • If your school community finds itself in the midst of a Yik Yak invasion, be ready to handle calls from the press. Rather than evading reporters, engage them in a thoughtful conversation about the problems of anonymous apps and provide them with the bigger picture. They will probably appreciate the research you did and the wider perspective.
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