Yik Yak, an app once targeted to undergraduate college students, has returned, with an audience aimed at ages 12 and older. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Yik Yak, an app once targeted to undergraduate college students, has returned, with an audience aimed at ages 12 and older. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Yik Yak is back, bringing concerns about cyberbullying with it

Popular phone app was used improperly by students back in its heyday

By Veronica Irwin

Examiner staff writer

Yik Yak is back. Should parents and students be concerned?

Well, if history is any lesson, this once-popular and controversial phone app could become a vehicle for cyberbullying among students in San Francisco.

Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen. But the backstory doesn’t bode well.

Upon opening the Yik Yak app, users are welcomed by a bouncing cartoon yak, fashioned like a hot air balloon with a mini gondola hanging below. Animated confetti falls from the top of the screen, before the fluffy little yak fades to reveal two simple newsfeeds: “new” and “hot.”

On the first newsfeed, users see a chronologically ordered, real-time list of posts left by anonymous users within a five-mile radius. On the “hot” feed, users see the most popular posts from the last 24 hours. Users can then “up vote” or “down vote” posts with a single click, similar to the popular online discussion site Reddit.

“Deleting Tinder, gonna meet people the old fashion way (not talking to anyone and dissociating),” read one of the top posts in San Francisco Thursday evening. Sexually lewd content — particularly that which is impulsive, outrageous or doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — is emblematic of the platform.

It’s no surprise that Yik Yak, with a target audience of undergraduate college students, took off among middle and high school students, too. Despite being designated on the Apple App Store as a service for users aged 17 and up at the time, its anonymous, immediate publishing format and colorful, cartoon-y aesthetics are attractive to a younger crowd.

For the same reasons, cyberbullying and threats of violence on the app became a serious problem at many schools. In San Clemente in 2014, for example, a school was placed on lockdown after an anonymous bomb threat was posted on the platform. In a CNN investigation that same year, students said they had witnessed their peers made fun of for being raped, among other attacks.

In an effort to solve the problem, YikYak partnered with the GPS data company Maponics in 2014. The partnership allowed Yik Yak to use a technique called geofencing to block access to the app via cellular data at 85% of American schools, though the app could often be accessed just a couple of blocks away. Amid controversy and a marked decrease in interest — use dropped 75% between 2015 and 2016 alone — the app shut down and was sold to the tech firm Square for $1 million. The payments company then salvaged Yik Yak for engineering talent and minor intellectual property rights.

Fast-forward to the present day: On Aug. 16, Yik Yak returned to the Apple App store, after a February purchase by a new company called Yik Yak Inc. This time, it’s marketed towards users ages 12 and older. It appears geofencing restrictions are no longer in place, either.

The San Francisco Examiner tested the app feet away from main entrances of 10 San Francisco Unified School District schools. The app was accessible using cellular data at all but two.

Judging by the the fact that Yik Yak has not formally re-committed to restricting the app’s access on school campuses, this likely had more to do with a lack of cell service than geofencing. SFUSD administrators, students and parents may have to navigate restrictions on student access themselves.

Yik Yak, an app once targeted to undergraduate college students, has returned, with an audience aimed at ages 12 and older. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Yik Yak, an app once targeted to undergraduate college students, has returned, with an audience aimed at ages 12 and older. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“In general, anonymous apps have the potential to really impact students’ mental health, especially if they get bombarded with messages that are demeaning or that are specific to them,” said Ana Homayoun, author of the book “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.” She often advises schools on social media and technology topics, and says that anonymous apps pose a unique challenge. “Anything that’s anonymous has the opportunity to turn sideways, because we don’t know where the content is coming from.”

So far, there’s no public record of Yik Yak causing major cyber bullying issues in San Francisco, during the app’s original heyday or since it returned to the App store. In fact, since its return earlier this month, activity on the Yik Yak app has been slow city-wide.

There are typically under 10 posts per hour (when checking the app from downtown San Francisco), and the nature of the content does not suggest outsized use among school-age children. At worst, the content is lewd, and at best, heartwarming; most of the feed is filled with bathroom stall-style posts about failed relationships and sexual angst.

Homayoun notes that the last time the app was available, in the mid-2010s, she saw positive activity. In one example, a self-identified young person anonymously asked about mental health support, and was directed toward reputable, local services Homayuon herself would have suggested. But she also saw school athletes — probably identifiable under the platform’s content guidelines because they can be classified as “public figures” — ridiculed by name.

Yik Yak, for its part, has instituted new “community guardrails” to curb bullying and threats of violence. These guidelines prohibit the sharing of identifiable information, bullying, defamation, hate speech, humiliation, and threats of violence. Violations can lead to an immediate ban on the platform. A unique feature removes posts from view that get just five “down votes,” effectively censoring content by public consensus.

Additionally, San Francisco’s school district controls which apps can be downloaded on school iPads, enabling them to prevent students from downloading Yik Yak, and uses content filtering on campus wi-fi, which can help limit use of the app if the tech company expands to other platforms. The district also distributes grade-level guides on the topic of digital agency, which can help teachers educate students about how to present themselves safely, kindly and honestly online. Students and parents are encouraged to report instances of cyberbullying as soon as possible.

“In the event that the school administration is not able to effectively intervene, the district also has a formal complaint procedure families can follow” said Laura Dudnick, public relations manager for SFUSD. The district did not respond to questions about whether Yik Yak has caused any cyberbullying issues since it’s relaunch.

According to Homayoun, educational programs are just as critical as geofencing, wi-fi filtering or other methods of blocking access to anonymous apps. She recommends that parents download and get familiar with the apps their children use to better understand the “language” of today’s social media, and to talk about it with their kids.

To help youth learn how to make smarter decisions about social media, Homayoun also suggests having children write a short report on the founders, content guidelines and data privacy restrictions of any app they want to download. “Kids sometimes come back — especially after learning about data privacy scandals — and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to download that,’” she said.

“Blocking is one tool, but everyone can find workarounds — as I always tell parents, kids are smarter than we are,” said Homayoun. “What we really need is to empower students to start making proactive decisions about where they are, and how they spend their time, online.”

virwin@sfexaminer.com

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