Today, Yik Yak serves as one of the largest sources of cyberbullying among social media platforms. Thousands of reports of misuse have surfaced in high schools around the country, some even leading to criminal investigations. In California, a teenager was charged with 3 felonies after posting about possible future terrorist attacks at local high schools. Many schools have taken the initiative to ban the use of the app on campus grounds and block it on school servers. As school IT administrators will confess, teens are adept at using proxy servers to get to blocked sites when they need to, and despite attempts to limit access to Yik Yak and similar sites, the problem of anonymous cyberbullying persists in communities all over the United States.
I downloaded Yik Yak a few months ago to see what all of the hype was about. When I logged on, many of the posts had zero relevance to me; I didn't know anything about many of the topics that were being discussed. However, as I kept reading, I started to pick up on the fact that the majority of the posts were not “friendly.” Instead, many of the posts were deliberately cruel in nature. Although the comments did not pertain to me as a user, it was apparent that the comments were in fact intended for someone to see with the intention of making them feel poorly about themselves.
Often times, cyberbullying on Yik Yak stems from unfounded rumors and accusations about someone. Not only are these accusations hurtful, they can seriously damage a victim’s online and real life reputation. When Yik Yak hit my school, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand when students were purposefully spreading fake information about others. As more and more rumors were generated, bullies began fueling the fire by targeting other students as well. This trend was not specific to my school. This type of anonymous online bullying takes place in high schools all across the United States. Due to the vast amount of users who can see posts, hurtful comments directed at a user on Yik Yak tend to go “viral,” when viewers screenshot posts to share them with their friends. Users can also “Up-Vote” comments, which can bring more attention to negative posts. Attention provides even more fuel to the bullies, which encourages them to continue abusing their victims.
When cyberbullying or even isolated moments of meanness take place on Yik Yak, it is common for it to spread to other social networks as well, which can be devastating to a person's online reputation. When users take screenshots of comments, the information can be shared with thousands when the screenshot is posted on social media outlets like Facebook or Twitter. When a post is published to these sites, it often seems to be done with little regard to privacy and thus made public, further perpetuating false information and cruel rumors. It is very easy for college admissions officers, future roommates, family, and even possible employers to then view this misinformation should a person run a search on the victim. It is especially scary because there is no way for a person who does not actually know the victim to be able to distinguish that said screenshots are untrue moments of mean-spiritedness. And while the victim may be able to take down one screenshot that winds up on other sites, the whole concept of viral sharing has consistently demonstrated how quickly information, true or not, can spread. One shared screenshot on social media enables thousands of people access to the original, now strangers who don’t even know the victim can also share the offending post, causing one painful comment to spread exponentially around the Internet.
This phenomenon forces us to ask: Why is Yik Yak the host of such bullying and profanity? Why do teenagers use the app if they know abuse is common? The answer to both boils down to one factor: Anonymous posting. Unlike other popular social media outlets, Yik Yak disguises users’ personal information by allowing him or her to post behind an anonymous account. This sense of secrecy sometimes leads teenagers to do something rash, something they would never do if it wasn't for this “security” of anonymity.
However, this invisible cloak is not as fool-proof as many people think. Just because a website or application claims to completely hide a user's identity, authorities and the employees of the application have total access to gain a users IP address (a computer's identity) and the location from where the post was published. Not only that, but the administrators of whatever network is hosting the Yik Yak community have access to user information also by way of IP addresses that are linked to every post. Due to this technical architecture, nothing posted on Yik Yak is totally anonymous. Despite knowing this, many teens continue to make some poor choices online. Bad decisions made online can lead to real life consequences including shame, hurt, disappointment, and even lawsuits.
It is important to mention that even though Yik Yak is the source of many instances of online bullying, the application does leave room for positivity. At Vanderbilt University, a student’s brother was in desperate need of a blood transfusion. After reaching out on many social networks to no avail, the student publicized the situation on Yik Yak. Soon after publishing the post, hundreds of students responded in attempts to help out. The increased volume of people responding to the student’s post took place due to the fact that one post on Yik Yak can be seen by thousands of people in a given area in a very short period of time, and when used for good, this can be a powerful and positive asset.
The potential that Yik Yak and other social media sites have for positive change gives hope to all who believe the app is nothing but dangerous. Misuse of websites and applications like Yik Yak is happening because teenagers do not realize the massive consequences that can result from something as simple as a person posting a single comment. It is only by being engaged and attentive that schools, network administrators, and even other users can help quell the rampant spread of cyberbullying in this new era of social networking prominence.
By John Heher, soon to be senior at Brooks School in Massachusetts. John's perspective as a high school student is invaluable to us at Cornerstone Reputation; keep an eye out for more insight from John in upcoming blogs.