Cyberbullying

Furman social media app misused

The Greenville NewsMarch 21, 2014 

Yik Yak app

— A social media app intended as an anonymous forum for Furman University students has found its way into the hands of middle and high school students in the Upstate and as far away as California — prompting school officials and law enforcement to take steps to block it while addressing issues of cyberbullying.

The Furman alums who developed the free app Yik Yak say they have worked in tandem with officials to keep underage kids from using it.

“It’s disheartening to a certain point to see it so misused by these younger students,” co-inventor Brooks Buffington told The Greenville News in an exclusive interview.

“We want this to be sustainable and constructive,” he said. “We don’t want to create an avenue for bullying.”

The app’s developers say that when used correctly, Yik Yak — which requires no information other than a user’s current location — acts as a “virtual billboard” that has been an asset for college students.

However, problems have quickly boiled over at local schools as underage teens have posted sexually explicit and racist content and referenced fellow students by name. A number of students have sought counseling for bullying, school officials say.

This week, schools in Greenville County, both public and private, have discussed the issue openly with students and parents.

Christ Church Episcopal School’s headmaster sent a letter home to parents updating them on the school’s response to inappropriate use of the app.

“We were afflicted with outrageous and malignant disparagements of individual CCES students,” Headmaster Leonard Kupersmith wrote in the letter he provided to The News. “We cannot trace the sources of those defamatory remarks. But we did what we can do to shut down access here and discourage access elsewhere.”

The Greenville County School District has contacted the app’s developers seeking to implement additional blocks that go beyond restrictions the school has in place stemming access to social media, district spokeswoman Susan Clarke said.

In a PA announcement, the J.L. Mann High administration addressed use of Yik Yak by students.

“Any time a student is harassed and bullied we make every effort to protect and safeguard the student,” J.L. Mann Principal Charles Mayfield said. “The challenge we face today with social media is one of educating students to act responsibly when making any form of public post. Their words can be used to help or to hurt.”

In Oconee County, law enforcement has gotten involved by making appeals to the media to get the word out.

No formal investigations have been initiated, but Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw said that students could be held liable for criminal charges if posts cross the line.

“Our main concern with this app is the potential misuse of this technology by someone making libelous statements under the assumption that they can remain anonymous,” Crenshaw said.

Mixed messages

A cursory look at the main feed on the Yik Yak app from users in the vicinity of downtown Greenville reveals a mix of communication — efforts to deliver the best one-liner, ruminations on the day of the week, complaints about the DMV.

Among them: Some questioning why high schoolers have hijacked the conversation.

Many of the messages, however, are unprintable and involve posters directing profanity-laced vitriol at students within and among various high schools.

What’s posted elsewhere depends on where you’re located when browsing the feed.

The app doesn’t require any registration, user profile or contact information. The only required function is that the user’s location is tracked by the program. Posts are broadcast to users within a 1.5-mile radius.

Rules do apply — but the means to enforce them are limited.

To install the app, users are warned that “Yik Yak contains age-restricted material. Tap OK to confirm that you are 17 or over.” The terms of use prohibit material that is “unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, harmful, vulgar, obscene or otherwise objectionable.”

The terms dictate that users can’t misrepresent their identities or affiliations with other people. However, the terms of use also state that the app doesn’t monitor the anonymous content and that users agree to use the service “at your own risk.”

“Of course, everybody’s a little more courageous when they can remain anonymous,” said Michael Thorsland, the Oconee school district’s assistant superintendent of operations. “There’s just awful things being said on this app.”

Thorsland detailed instances of cruel written abuse on the app at Oconee schools, ones that he said he’d rather not see published. The school district has blocked the app on its servers but can’t restrict access over cellular data, he said.

The problem isn’t confined to the Upstate. School districts in Georgia, California and Illinois have reported cyberbullying stemming from the app.

App developers respond

Buffington, one of the app’s co-inventors, told The News that developers have responded.

Recently, they implemented a technique known as “geo-fencing,” which goes beyond school districts’ restrictions on school servers to block use via any data connection within a defined area, Buffington said.

If anyone tries to access Yik Yak on school campuses that aren’t approved, the app is disabled and users are told they can’t obtain access because they are at a school.

The geo-fencing technique has been applied to about 85 percent of schools, and will be instituted at any schools that bring the app to the developers’ attention, Buffington said.

“Every day we get new emails from schools we may have missed, and we just go in and block the app on their school’s campus,” he said.

Yik Yak includes features that will result in a post’s removal, such as two users reporting abuse, he said. Users can also “vote up” or “vote down” a message.

The app has another safeguard that perhaps is the most effective — but only if parents get involved, Buffington said.

Because it’s listed as a “17+” app, parents who enable parental controls on their child’s device can block usage of the app, Buffington said.

“We’re doing all we can in terms of blocking it, having the highest rating that we can, having all these report systems in place,” Buffington said. “To a certain point, we can only do so much. We’re willing to go above and beyond probably where most apps would go.”

The Oconee district has found the Yik Yak founders responsive, Thorsland said.

“We’re very appreciative that the developers of the app are acting in what we consider a very responsible way to try to keep this away from middle schools and high schools,” Thorsland said.

Yik Yak began with good intentions, and in the right hands has proven successful, such as providing students a forum to share which guest speakers will be appearing on campus, Buffington said.

News that Furman University planned to do away with its men’s golf program quickly circulated on Yik Yak, Buffington said. The golf program was restored following public input.

A Furman dorm student who missed a flight and was stranded without a place to stay posted his plight on Yik Yak and was connected with another student willing to let him crash on his couch, Buffington said.

The app’s anonymity is vital, Buffington said, because it allows people to be judged on the content they produce, not who they are or what they look like.

“It allows people to be friends without knowing one another,” he said. “It takes away some of the pressure involved in other social media. With the way our app is set up, it requires a certain level of maturity and responsibility. It’s something that college kids or people who have graduated college are equipped to handle.”

Recently, the app’s standard 5-mile radius was reduced to 1.5 miles after colleges complained that too many high school users located off campus were ruining the experience, Buffington said.

“Obviously, it wasn’t very good content,” he said.

Use of the app has spread “to pretty much every college campus in the Southeast,” Buffington said.

Yik Yak’s developers no longer publicly report the number of users, but as of about a month ago use had grown to about 250,000, he said.

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