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Shift to anonymous apps creates new school challenges

Garnering the most concern in many districts is Yik Yak
Youths take advantage of anonymous apps like Yik Yak may not always be aware of the potential consequences.
Youths take advantage of anonymous apps like Yik Yak may not always be aware of the potential consequences.

Parents have taken over Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. This has sent device-laden students flocking to social media apps such as Instagram, SnapChat and Yik Yak, and the shift has created new challenges for administrators trying to root out cyberbullying and threats of violence.

Garnering the most concern in many districts is Yik Yak, a free app created in 2013 that connects users within a 10-mile radius to a message board, and allows anyone to read and post anonymously. The app, meant for college students, is blocked on most K12 campuses thanks to technology called geofencing.

However, many middle and high school students use it at home, according to published reports. The creators raised the age limit in the App Store from 12 to 17 last year, but the app does not verify the ages of users.

Apps with anonymity features might give some students more intrepidity to check out interest groups they would not otherwise explore, says Darri Stephens, director of digital learning for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that rates the safety of media and technology for students and families. But many youths take advantage of anonymity and are unaware of the consequences.

“There are no online and offline lives for teens—it’s their 24/7 digital lives woven throughout the fabric of their days, regardless of what kind of device they have or if they are in or out of school,” Stephens says. “It’s hard for teens to navigate this digital world where everything is instantly public and permanent.”

Troubles with apps

Yik Yak has been used to threaten mass violence on more than a dozen college campuses. Users at several more have posted racist, homophobic and misogynist messages. Many K12 administrators are asking students to delete the app given the bullying, harassment and threats that have been reported.

For example, in York Public Schools in Nebraska, a rural district of 1,400 students located 45 minutes west of Lincoln, administrators and staff members began checking Yik Yak multiple times throughout the day last fall. In February they spotted a post that stated, “Tomorrow is going to be an EXPLOSIVELY fun day at [York High School].”

Symbols of guns and bombs also appeared in the post. State and local law enforcement worked with the app’s creators to determine the IP address of the source, and an 18-year-old student at the school was arrested for allegedly making a false bomb threat.

“A lot of the hurtful and disruptive things that happen on Yik Yak spill over into your classroom and campuses,” says Superintendent Mike Lucas. “It’s smart for administrators to be aware of what their kids are doing on social media. Teenagers are unable to draw the line with what they’ve read on Yik Yak last night and what happens in first period English this morning.”

The district reviews its social media policies every year, and offers social media workshops and guidelines for staff members and students through school media centers.

“We feel like we have the policies we need—we just need to continue to create more awareness of all the great things social media can do, but also the horrible things that can come from it,” Lucas says.

Social media policies

More districts are beginning to monitor student social media use around the clock to prevent students from hurting themselves or others.

Every district should have an acceptable use policy for devices and social media—and have it in place, ideally, before an incident occurs, Stephens says.

A best practice for administrators is to gather students, parents and teachers to provide input, determine what is acceptable and clarify the consequences for breaking the rules. Many schools tie these policies into their overall mission statements and codes of conduct.

“You need to be really clear on how technology has a hand in how you want your students to be,” Stephens says. “Public schools should distill technology values to conversation language, so they become part of the school culture.”