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One day in April of this year, a cyber menace swept through the halls of Staples High School in Westport, Conn. It spread like an infectious disease, hitting student after student.
The plague was YikYak, a social media app that allows users to post messages from their smartphones. It’s highly local – you can only see messages posted within a mile and a half – and completely anonymous. At Staples, the ability to post anonymous comments to a rapt local audience turned YikYak into a competition in cruelty; a barrage of hateful comments and public humiliation that no one could stop. And since users vote for the most popular comment, the worst were often at the top.
“By the end of the day, we had, mostly girls who were crying,” said John Dodig, the school principal. “It was one after the other, and I had never seen anything like that before. And I’ve seen just about everything there is to see in public education.”
'Whole new world'
“There were the most horrible – homophobic, racist, Islamaphobic, sexist remarks,” said Will Haskell, a Staples senior who wrote about the experience for New York magazine. “…If something were especially mean or especially cruel, then it was extra popular.”
According to Haskell, once students found out that horrible comments were being posted about specific students, everyone downloaded it. In the hallways, all eyes were glued to smartphone screens. “And as each new post came in, everyone would laugh or gasp,” he said “…The school really was brought to a halt.”
“I am terrified at the thought that somebody could very potentially kill themselves.”
Staples High teacher
Teachers and administrators had no idea what to do.
“We were all just completely floored,” said Staples teacher Cathy Schager. “I mean, sick to our stomach.”
Dodig, the principal, has been an educator for near five decades, but even he wasn't sure how to handle this latest threat. “It hit like a war, like someone had just bombed the place,” hesaid.
He went on the public address system, telling the student body that YikYak was causing a lot of pain, and urging kids not to log on. He admits that the tactic backfired; all the students who hadn’t yet heard of the app immediately downloaded it.
Dodig says the problem was confined to a handful of bullies, and that many students were ashamed of the bad cyber behavior. “There were loads of kids who came up to me either individually or in groups to say they were sorry for me having to deal with this” he says. “I left at the end of the day emotionally drained.”
Dodig say he felt so helpless he even considered retiring.
“It’s a whole new world,” he said.
It’s the anonymity that makes Yik Yak particularly pernicious. Unlike bullying in the past, there’s no way to confront the person who said vicious things about you, explained Schager.
“As if it isn't bad enough to see your name and nasty things about you, but to be completely castrated in your ability to confront somebody and say, ‘Why would you say something like that about me? What have I ever done to you?,’” she said.
“I am terrified at the thought,” she added, “that somebody could very potentially kill themselves.”
YikYak is less than a year old, but has sparked mass cyberbullying incidents across the nation. In some cases, threats made over YikYak have temporarily shut down schools, such as San Clemente High School in San Clemente, Calif., in April of this year.
Online viciousness has long been a problem at middle and high schools, but the ease at which anonymous apps like YikYak can be used to torment others has added new urgency to find a solution. Schools and parents are now scrambling over how to protect children from technology that in many cases the adults don’t fully understand.
To stem the tide of online adolescent cruelty, there is a new movement underway to teach “digital citizenship.” Diana Graber is one of its pioneers.
Graber first heard about the social media app when her older daughter’s school was put on lockdown for three hours due to a bomb threat posted on Yik Yak." I said, "What did you do those three hours." And she says, "Well, we all downloaded Yik Yak," Graber remembers, laughing.
As a digital literacy educator, Diane Graber had been coaching parents about online bullying for years. But when her younger daughter’s school experienced its own cyberbullying incident, Graber wanted to do more to prepare the students for life on the digital battleground.
“We have to remember that kids spend more time with media than they do with their parents or in school,” Graber said. “They're fascinated with new social networks. Because it's a new way to express themselves and to keep in touch with their friends.”
With Graber’s help, Journey School in Aliso Viejo, Calif., implemented a weekly course to help kids navigate the online world. She says a lot of young kids don’t appreciate that what they post is permanent, and need to be taught about how their digital footprint will live forever. To get her message through to the kids, she said nothing beats peer-to-peer interactions.
I think it’s unconscionable that it’s not being taught in every school in America.
Digital media educator
“We bring in a lot of situations that are happening in our life and we talk about them,” she said. “And it's laying the groundwork for how they're going to act when they're actually online.”
For many of these sixth graders, Graber’s “Cyber Civics” class has made them wary about going online.
“After hearing what can happen, with people cyberbullying or making fun of your picture, I'm kind of hesitant about it,” said Olivia, a sixth grader at Journey. “I’ve been bullied recently, too. That’s why I’m going to be very precise, keep it private and make sure who I’m friends with.”
Principal Shaheer Faltas is a huge fan. He says there hasn’t been a single reported cyberbullying incident on campus in three years.
Other organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League have developed programs to provide similar curriculum to elementary, middle and high schools. But the lack of widespread adoption baffles Graber.
“I think it’s unconscionable that it’s not being taught in every school in America,” she said.
The creators of Yik Yak have recognized the problem that their app – originally invented for college campuses – has caused, and they say they’ve blocked it a large majority of middle and high schools. But cyberbulling will always find a new app to contend with.
“Today's Yik Yak will be tomorrow's we can't-even-imagine-what,” Graber said. “You know, 10 minutes ago it was Ask.fm. Ten minutes before, it was SnapChat. So, there's always gonna be something.”
In fact, Haskell, the high school senior, said Yik Yak “isn’t really a thing” anymore.
“The next day, the kids came into class and they were like, ‘Have you heard about Gaggle?’” Schager said. “And I was like, ‘What?’ And they were like, ‘It's the same thing as Yik Yak, except it's pictures instead of texts.’”