Is the latest tool for bullying on your child's smartphone?

Published on Monday, 26 May 2014 23:38 - Written by EMILY GUEVARA eguevara@tylerpaper.com

When a new app became popular at Robert E. Lee High School a few weeks ago, sophomore Mollie Millslagle, 16, downloaded it just like many of her peers.

She started reading the posts on the app, which functions much like an anonymous Twitter. At first, they were funny, but then they started making her sad.

The messages she read were very personal and offensive, sharing information about people’s sex lives or appearances.

Sometimes, the messages mentioned people by name. Other times, they didn’t, but it still might be evident by the post.

By the end the day, many of the students were over the novelty of the app and had stopped using it, Miss Millslagle said.

“It just really turned ignorant. I felt ignorant reading all of it. So I deleted the app the first day,” she said.

Although Miss Millslagle and some of her peers made the decision to delete the Yik Yak app and not be a part of the negative conversation, others have chosen the other route.

Some of the local posts to the app in the past weeks have touched on derogatory comments about women’s bodies, gang affiliations, sexual activity and negative comments about high school classmates.

There also have been positive posts about making the world a better place, local camps, college affiliations and more.

But what has become a concern to many parents, students and educators nationwide are the high school students choosing to use this app for negative purposes such as bullying and the effects of such behavior.

 

WHAT IS YIK YAK?

Launched in November, Yik Yak is an app that allows users to anonymously post short messages that can be read by other users within a 1.5-mile radius.

Users can “upvote” posts they like and “downvote” comments they don’t like.

The app was designed to function like a virtual central plaza or campus bulletin board for college students and is active on more than 200 college campuses, according to a media spokesman for the company.

However, it has spread beyond that.

On the app’s website, the terms and conditions page spells out certain requirements any user agrees to be bound by. These include being at least 17 years old, and not transmitting content that is, among other things, obscene, offensive, libelous, hate-oriented, harmful, vulgar, threatening, defamatory or racist.

That said, part of the user agreement reads, “You agree to use the Yik Yak service at your own risk and that Yik Yak shall have no liability to you for content that you may find objectionable, obscene, or in poor taste.”

A media spokesman said the company is aware of the ongoing abuse of the app by some middle and high school students and is dedicated to working with parents and school administrators to stop it.

In that vein, the app monitors conversations and posts and “any negative or harmful behavior will result in the respective user being blocked, or altogether banned from future use,” according to the spokesman.

The company also will geo-fence a middle or high school campus if requested. This prevents the use of the app within that area and users who try to use it there will receive a message indicating that sending or posting messages is disabled, according to the media spokesman.

 

EDUCATORS ADDRESS APP

Ken Vaughn, Tyler ISD’s chief student and support services officers, said the district has requested a geo-fence.

He said the main problem is that because users can’t tell who sent the message, people can put down other people all day and they won’t necessarily know where it’s coming from.

“It’s causing a lot of bullying concerns,” he said.

In response to a Yik Yak-related situation at Lee, the district sent out a message through its Alert Now system encouraging parents to remove the app from their children’s phones and talk with their children about the dangers of it, Vaughn said.

It can be a very hateful thing, he said. But beyond that, it also can result in criminal charges in certain situations.

Vaughn spoke of two cases, one in Alabama and one in California, in which students were arrested and charged with felonies for making threats.

“They think if I send this out, there is no way to trace this back to me,” Vaughn said. “That’s not true.”

 

PARENTAL GUIDANCE

Just as school officials are dealing with the situation on campuses, parents also are learning how to best work with their children and their technology use from home.

Lee mother Ronna Best, 43, a registered nurse, said she learned about the problems the app was causing at Lee when she received a message from the school about it. The letter made clear the district was working with the company and in house at the district to block it.

She said the school dealt with the situation well, and she was pleased to see that.

“I think that was excellent that they were on top of it before it got out of hand,” she said.

Sarah Starr, 47, a stay-at-home mother, has three students, two of whom are in TISD schools. She learned about the app through a forum she attended about technology and teens.

When it became popular at her daughter’s school, her daughter downloaded it to check it out. But what Mrs. Starr and her daughter found was not something they wanted to be a part of.

“It seems to me to be an app that really has no good purpose, and as far as I can tell, there’s no reason for a teenager to have it on their phone,” Mrs. Starr said.

Once her daughter took a look at the comments being made on it, she removed it from her phone. Mrs. Starr also told her she didn’t want her to have it on there again.

Mrs. Starr said every parent approaches parenting differently, but it’s definitely their responsibility to know what’s going on.

She said in her family, she and her husband communicate often with their kids and bring up issues as needed.

“Parents definitely need to pick up their kids’ cellphones and see what’s on there from time to time,” she said. “I think it’s very important.”

Leslie Harrison, who owns It’s Fit to Eat, a health and nutrition business, said a friend showed her Yik Yak, and she was appalled by what she saw.

“The things that I saw were just so incredibly vulgar, I could not even believe that a young person, you know, a student would have written something like that,” she said.

Ms. Harrison has a fourth-grader, sixth-grader and eighth-grader at All Saints Episcopal School. The two older ones have smartphones, and she said she has 100 percent access to their phones at all times.

“They know at any time, we can take their phone and read their texts and search their history,” she said. “They’re not allowed to erase anything unless we tell them to.”

She said her oldest child, the 14-year-old, had heard of the app but didn’t have it on his phone. She told him under no conditions could he have that app on his phone, and he didn’t have a problem with that.

“It’s at times taxing to keep up with all of the new applications that come out and what they do,” she said. “I stress to them that it’s forever. You can’t take it back, what’s posted. Once an image is seen, once something is read, you can’t take that out of somebody’s mind or memory.”

Lee mother Colleen Millslagle, owner of Success Learning Center in Tyler, said she gives her children freedom until they need it taken away and that applies to technology use.

“We’ve taught them to be responsible people,” she said adding that one of her children was bullied in middle school so she knows the adverse affects it has.

She said her daughter, Miss Millslagle, always has been a person who stands up for people.

When the Yik Yak app was making the rounds at Lee, Miss Millslagle found negative things were said about her, but she took it in stride.

“I had things said about me, but I took it as a way of, you know, they don’t know me because they’re not with me,” Miss Millslagle said. “They’re not friends because, you know, a friend wouldn’t do that. Also, it’s cowardly to do that.”

“If somebody said something about us or about (a) friend, we didn’t really listen to it because it wasn’t worth listening to — because we know the truth, and the Internet isn’t always true.”