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Yikes! Yik Yak app problems

Yikes! Yik Yak, new chat tool for kids, a serious problem for schools, parents

by Bob Sullivan on March 12, 2014

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YikYakApp.com

In the technology arms race between parents and children, kids have a new weapon: Yik Yak.

A simple app for mobile devices, Yik Yak sets up temporary, anonymous chats among users who are near each other, based on GPS location. It's less than four months old, but already, it's causing big problems at schools. Three prank bomb threats are have been blamed on the app, according to security firm Sophos, and numerous incidents of cyberbullying. Chicago school officials have already banned the app and sent a note home warning parents about it last week.

"Over the past 24 hours, we have become aware that students on both of our campuses have been accessing a mobile app called Yik Yak," said one such note, provided to me by school technology expert Ana Homayoun. "This app can be used to post anonymous comments that are then shared with other users within a radius of a few miles. We wanted to let you know about this app because of the harmful and inappropriate comments we have seen, in some cases naming other students."

The school notes that blocking Yik Yak through its wireless networks does not prevents students from using the software on their own mobile phone networks.

The app is supposed to be used only by those 17 years old and older, but there is little to stop younger kids from signing up. Co-founder Brooks Buffington told CNN it's designed chiefly for college students, who use it as a local version of Twitter. For now, the firm is cutting off all usage in Chicago as it tries to implement better blocking technology.

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Sophos blogger Lisa Vaas pointed out that the 17-and-under restriction is a bit of an indictment of the product.

"The application supposedly restricts use to those over the age of 17, in acknowledgement of the idea that it takes a bit of maturity to post comments anonymously about the people and things around us without it turning into a YouTube-comments-like toxic waste dump," she wrote.

As always, the best strategy for parents is knowledge and communication. Apps like Yik Yak are at their most dangerous when kids know about them and parents don't. So, tell your friends. And of course tell your kids that they aren't really anonymous - there's already been one Yik Yak bomb threat arrest. That should be enough evidence that this tool, as many others, offers only the promise of obscurity, not real anonymity.

As with all technology, it's unfair to call it good or bad. It's a tool that needs to be used with care, Homayoun said. The deeper issue for kids and parents is about the continued struggle for kids to find anonymity online, a phenomenon Homayoun calls "The Vanishing Web."

"When treated correctly (as with anything) these moments can be opportunities for students to reflect on why they are going anonymous, and what they would do if their identity was revealed? Many times there is this false perception of anonymity,"
Homayoun said.

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