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Teen cyberbullying grows with 'anonymous' social chat apps

Taylor Armerding | March 25, 2014
Apps like Yik Yak, Whisper and Secret offer teens online anonymity, but experts say parents need to remind kids that the promise is bogus.

While school districts around the country enact "zero-tolerance" policies against bullying, technology is making bullying easier and more seductive for teens, by promising them anonymity.

And the unanimous opinion of several security and privacy experts is that there is no technological way to stop it. But then, the promise of anonymity is bogus, if law enforcement gets interested.

Not that any of the developers of free apps that create anonymous social chat rooms or message boards -- Yik Yak, Whisper, Secret and others -- are endorsing or even suggesting bullying. They all loudly condemn it.

The pitch from Yik Yak, a location-based app, is that it simply connects up to 500 nearby users (within about a mile) through GPS tracking on their mobile phones, to function as a kind of virtual bulletin board. It is also pitched at college students -- those younger than 17 aren't even supposed to be using it. According to the company, it has 300,000 or so users, the bulk of them on college campuses in the East and Southeast.

But, it hasn't worked out that way, which doesn't surprise anyone familiar with middle- and high-school students. As parents, teachers, coaches and technology experts have pointed out, there is no way to prevent somebody younger than 17 from downloading and using Yik Yak. And they have been doing so by the thousands.

Ian Cleary, founder of the social networking site Razorsocial, said the ban is clearly bogus. "They want under-17s using it," he said.

And too much of the time, the teens have been using it for cyberbullying or to make threats. If all publicity is good publicity, then it's been a very good few weeks for Yik Yak, but the publicity hasn't been positive. The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month that, "at least four Chicago-area high schools issued warnings about Yik Yak in the past two weeks, with most principals asking parents to remove the app from their children's phones and make sure the teens don't reinstall it."

One principal said the app was allowing students to "verbally abuse" other students, staff and faculty. He called them, "especially vicious and hurtful since there is no way to trace their source and it can be disseminated widely."

Threats made through Yik Yak also led to the evacuation or lockdown of schools in Marblehead, Mass., Decatur, Ala. and San Clemente, Calif. in just the past two months.

The company responded to the complaints in Chicago by shutting down access to the app across the entire city for several days with so-called geofencing. Cofounder Brooks Buffington told the Huffington Post last week that the company was working on geofencing all the middle and high schools in the city, and would eventually do so at schools all across the country.


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