Yik Yak? Yuck. New Mobile App Is A Child Safety Concern

Yik Yak, a mobile device application, is creating concern among some school administrators. The app allows users to anonymously send messages to anyone who is within approximately one mile of them and is signed on to the app. It was intended for college-aged users, and warns that it should not be downloaded by anyone under 17. However, that has not prevented middle and high school students from accessing the app.

The anonymous nature of the messages entices and encourages users to post discussions about anything. Profanity, racial, gender, and religious slurs, sexual content, nudity, offensive humor, and drug and alcohol references have all been found on the app.

Schools notice students using the app to cyberbully with hateful messages or to post reports of possible school violence, creating disruption and fear in the school. Many school officials have responded by banning the app, sending out letters to parents informing them of the app and its negative consequences, and even prohibiting the use of smartphones on school grounds.

The app's description suggests privacy in posting, stating, "[w]hat happens on Yik Yak, stays on Yik Yak." However, messages can be traced, and like any post on the Internet, the user has little control over where their message can ultimately be sent. Shannan Younger "Yik Yak app is wreaking havoc in schools: 11 things parents need to know," www.chicagonow.com (Mar. 4, 2014).

Commentary and Checklist

Yik Yak, designed for older users, has found its way into the lives of younger kids. Many of these types of apps, including Kik, Whisper, and Ask.fm, facilitate anonymous messaging that leads to abuse. In addition, several of these apps rely on the user's location to connect people who are in close proximity.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires application developers to include specific features if they gear their app towards children under 13. Because many of these messaging apps do not comply with COPPA, they contain statements prohibiting younger age groups from downloading them. However, they do not verify age.

Parents and caregivers should keep up-to-date on the latest mobile applications available, and continually monitor the apps their children are accessing. Most apps are rated by age group, and many devices allow parents to restrict access to apps based on their rating.

Most importantly, parents and caregivers need to discuss with their tweens and teens the risks involved with social websites and mobile apps. Here are some ideas to start the conversation:
  • Talk with kids about online safety and what that means. Express your concerns, and let them know your expectations for online activity.
  • Consider creating a written contract with your kids that details the type of online behavior they are expected to follow.
  • Make sure your kids know what is considered private information. They should never give that information to someone they do not know or have never met.
  • Talk about cyberbullying and the serious consequences that can occur when participating in hurtful or dangerous posts.
  • Help kids to understand that regardless of the perceived anonymity of the app, posts over the Internet will never be completely secure.
  • Make online safety an ongoing discussion with your kids.
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