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Learning with George Couros

Yik Yak: What you should know, what you can do if you need to, and why it’s complicated.

A few days ago, a friend talked to me about YikYak.  I had heard of this before but had never really checked it out.  I knew that it was a platform for potential cyberbullying because The Bully Free Alliance of York Region of which I am a member, has spoken openly about the potential danger of the app which operates on the promise of anonymity.  But, when we looked at the app that afternoon the only thing that stood out was, “Poop is poop spelled backwards.”  I had no idea that one day later, I would lose sleep over some of the posts on the app.

What is Yik Yak?

Yik Yak is a social media app where users can “yak” anonymously. As is the case with other social media, the app in and of itself is not “bad”.  One student I talked to about it said she liked to see what students at different universities were saying on campus. Yik Yak does, in fact, have pretty explicit rules about its use, but the lure of anonymity makes it fertile ground for mean-spirited individuals to engage in offensive behaviour.

The premise is that you sign up for this service, enable location services, and then you can get a live feed of what everyone within a 1.5 Km radius is saying around you–completely anonymously.  Few, if any adults are in the space, so you can imagine what might happen.

If you disapprove of a post, you can “downvote,” but if you can “upvote” it as well. The up and down votes cancel each other out.  If there are 5 “down votes” the message will disappear.  The messages with the most “upvotes” rise to the top.

There has been much written about the app in the US. At USC, one editor urges that we get rid of Yik Yak completely.  Diana Graber of the Huffington Post has an interesting post about it, as does the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?”

At one of our schools, YikYak got completely out of hand the other day.  And though some students would “downvote” comments so they disappeared within minutes, there were a plethora of offensive comments posted with several “upvotes”.

Students and teachers who were targeted were completely demoralized and upset. Understandably, the teachers and administrators who found out about it wanted IT to shut it down and I in truth, as I worried about the welfare of students targeted, in that moment I did not disagree.

What we learned about Yik Yak and inappropriate use

A more effective mechanism, we learned, is to have YikYak apply a geofence  to suspend the account if there is evidence that there are posts made by minorities or that the app is being used inappropriately.  This is what would appear if the account was suspended:

Yik Yak worked with administration to ensure that a geofence was put up–though this process takes anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days.  These steps  may provide support for administrators or Guidance Counsellors who notice that YikYak is being used offensively:

                                                                                                                                                                              (emphasis added)
Here is the contact information for Yik Yak Support http://www.yikyakapp.com/ in case you need it.

A few other things Yik Yak told us:

-if a post is flagged multiple times, it is sent to our moderation team. If you flag a post, the user who created it will not know that you flagged their post, however, if they are suspended, they will receive a notification about their suspension.

-Yik Yak cannot disclose any user information without the proper documents from law officials.

The federal Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., restricts Yik Yak’s disclosure of user account information without the lawful consent of the account holder or unless authorized by a properly issued warrant, court order, or subpoena. As a result, Yik Yak can only respond to requests for user account information that are received directly from a law enforcement agency pursuant to appropriate legal process. If you are aware of an emergency situation or other criminal activity, you should immediately contact your local law enforcement officials.
Guidelines for law enforcement officials seeking information about Yik Yak user accounts are available on the website at: [ http://www.yikyakapp.com/legal/ ]http://www.yikyakapp.com/legal/. Please have law enforcement contact us following these guidelines.

What the school did…

Administrators let Guidance and Chaplaincy know about the app and the comments made on it as it was clear that some students would need the support. There was an announcement made and a few teachers posted in the app, which in some ways made it worse.

The principal called for an assembly of the President’s Council (the students who represent each of the Councils in the school), where he asked them what they thought should be done to address the situation.  As in any situation like this, often the students posting offensive things are in the minority, and with the situation out of hand, it was clear that these students wanted to ensure that they became part of the solution.

What the students said…

So much more than we could have anticipated as they engaged in some genuine dialogue about what could be done.  Here’s a summary:

  • Many students implored us to shut the app down completely
  • Other students argued that if you shut the app down,  there are other apps that operate in the same way (they referenced Whisper and Ask FM)
  • Others made the comment that if the Board blocked the app, students would just use their own data.
  • One student made us aware of the “flagging” mechanism which can only be seen if you go into the comment itself.
  • Others suggested that they spread the word and go into the app to post silly comments and to counter-act some of the negative ones
  • One young woman suggested that teachers be more vigilant with the no cell-phone in class policy.
  • Many students wanted to into their classes and talk about the issue with them
  • Most of them agreed that the week before, there had been nothing objectionable on the app, and that most likely next week it would be not newsworthy again.

In the end, the student action plan was that while school administration and IT worked on blocking the app, students would..

1.  Flag posts which were inappropriate and identified users
2.  Post on the app in more positive ways, ensuring that anyone who was targeted was supported and/or complimented and encourage their Councils to do so as well.
3.  Speak to their classmates about the situation.

Administration empowered the students to address the problem and the students took on the responsibility willingly and with much empathy, but there will need to be much healing and support for the school community as a result of this incident.

 

What I did as a parent…

Being so affected by this incident, I got our family (my two teenage daughters) to download the app and we read some of the posts together.  There was nothing really objectionable.  In fact, many of the posts in our geographic area were silly:
“I’m still scared of thunder and I’m 18”
“It’s awesome to have really good conversations with my dog”

I asked them what they would do if do if they saw something mean or inappropriate.  My older daughter said she would downvote it so it would disappear as quickly as possible “so the person wouldn’t feel bad.”  Now she could have just been saying that because we were having this conversation. But we were having the conversation.
And then she said, “This is kind of stupid actually”…and deleted the app.

But yesterday, my daughter re-installed the app and I was horrified.

My inside voice screamed, “How dare you?  Delete that app right now!” My outside voice calmly asked why she would do that when she knew about the horrible things that had happened in the app and that clearly I was so affected by the events that happened.  Her response to me was interesting. She said that in our area the posts are silly and funny.  She said, “Don’t worry mum, if I see something inappropriate, I’ll downvote it or report it.”  She even asked me to look at it with her.

And despite every fibre in my being that was screaming at me to get her to delete it, I didn’t (for now) because the posts in our area really aren’t inappropriate.   Will I be extra diligent about checking up on her in that space? Absolutely.  But, letting her keep the app says I trust her and I want her to keep talking to me about the world into which I have so little insight as an adult.  Besides, now I know exactly what to do if there is something inappropriate or dangerous happening.

A Very Complicated Issue

So often we think of something like this as very black and white, but there are so many layers here to consider.

One of the students with whom we spoke was very forthright in his comments to us about how adults sometimes oversimplify things like this.  While we tend to speak about “good students” and “bad students”posting, he thoughtfully suggested that a very good student who might be needing to vent, might use Yik Yak as a mechanism to do so and that to categorize “good” and “bad” is not entirely accurate or fair.

And if your adult voice is emphatic that having an online place to vent is just stupid and dangerous, you need to read Dana Boyd’s book, It’s Complicated, which might make you rethink the idea of how students today view privacy in their networked lives.

And then there is the issue of blocking apps by IT.  There is no question that this app needed to be blocked immediately in this case to ensure the safety and well being of staff and students being targeted.  And yet there is lingering doubt in my mind that blocking all objectionable apps is a real solution; a sentiment echoed by more than one of the students.  In this case, isn’t knowledge power? Wouldn’t an administrator, like to be able to go onto the app to see what activity is happening that might put students in jeopardy without it being blocked from view because in reality students would still be able to do all of this on their own networks?  Might we need to rethink this stance in order to understand the realm of social media a little better as educators?

Then again, if we don’t block an app like this, is it reasonable to suggest that Administrators can be aware of and check all of the apps out there that might potentially cause this much damage? Who has time for that?  This issue alone took up the full attention of the admin team when we know that there are so many other issues that are important to the well being of students in a school.

Another issue that came up is to enforce the “no cell-phone in class” rule.  Does that really solve the problem? Everything I do in my job encourages the use of technology in class as it can provide so many opportunities for creativity and accessibility.  I’m not sure I could even teach a class without students using their cellphones for something (very few of our classrooms are in computer labs). This knee-jerk reaction does not seem to me the right course of action as it doesn’t really even address the issue.

George Couros’ who had just spent some time at our School Board, also really got me thinking about Digital Leadership  How can we better enpower our students? At what age do we start?  How can we better tap into student voice to help us navigate this new frontier?

And the administrator at the school posed some very interesting questions as well.  What are the legal supports in place?  Is the solution petition the government to make Bill 13C more robust to include comments as well as images?  You only need to look at the controversy surrounding this Bill to know that there is no easy answer here.

Isn’t the bigger question, beyond technology and apps? How do we teach empathy to students and an understanding that an anonymous post can be just as hurtful–if not more so?  Shouldn’t teaching students Catholic Character mean we teach them to be the same person online and face to face?

I have invited the students from President’s Council to write a guest blog-post which I am hoping they will do.   I welcome your feedback and the sharing of your own experiences.