Fencing in cyber-bullies

Local schools encounter social media app Yik Yak, or as one student calls it: ‘The easiest way ever made to insult someone’

From Facebook messages to Snapchat videos, social media has transformed the way young people communicate. And into each digital platform have slunk cyber-bullies – abusing feelings and reputations with unprecedented reach and impact.

Abbotsford student Kenton Palmer bitterly labels a relatively new social media app that recently swept through several local schools last month as “the easiest way ever made to insult people.”

Palmer is speaking about Yik Yak, an easy-to-use mobile phone program, or app, that allows users to see and respond to messages created nearby. The app relies on smartphones’ GPS capabilities and functions like an online bulletin board. It’s also anonymous. Within seconds of downloading the app, and without entering any personal information, users can be posting messages that can be seen by fellow “yakkers” within a 2.4-kilometre radius.

It sounds like a fun idea, and a quick look at the app shows users complaining about exams, and sharing their stress about prom. But at high schools and universities in Canada and the United States, the combination of hundreds of users in close proximity to one another exchanging anonymous messages has often proven to be a recipe for conflict.

Seeing messages targeting minorities, women and professors, several American universities have pondered banning the app.

In March, it came to Abbotsford, with students at several schools discovering Yik Yak en masse, despite a screen that requires users to confirm they are at least 17 years old when downloading the app.

Over the course of a single night, it seemed like half the school had downloaded the app, said Palmer, a Robert Bateman secondary Grade 11 student. The number of messages skyrocketed and at its peak, “there was a new Yik Yak post every five seconds.” Classmates became even more obsessed with their phones. And while the app could theoretically have good uses, student Erika Voth says the most-read messages were those that aired previously whispered gossip for the whole school to see – with female students the most frequent targets.

Acting vice-principal Tara Plantinga said the app spread around the school like a “flash flame.”

Yik Yak hit Yale secondary around the same time. Parents soon received an email that said some students were using the app to send “disrespectful and hurtful messages about other students.”

Administrators at both schools, along with Abbotsford Traditional secondary, asked the developers of Yik Yak to erect a “geo-fence” to block the use of the app in and around their schools.

At Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), principal Dave Neufeld also heard complaints about the app, but chose not to request a geo-fence. (A request to Yik Yak for a list of all local schools with geo-fences in place was not answered.)

••••••••

If abusive Yik Yak messages mark a pinnacle of cyber-bullying, they are simply the latest peak since teenagers started interacting with each other online. Twenty years ago, chat rooms and message boards provided anonymity, but the internet was still largely used as a tool to communicate across long distances, rather than with the teen down the street – or across the room. It was also slow, tied up the phone line, and was billed on a per-minute basis.

In recent years though, not only have all those barriers come down, but computers have moved out of the home and into students’ pockets. Nearly three-quarters of American teenagers had a smart phone last year, according to a study, and the ratio is likely similar or higher in Canada, which has a higher proportion of people with the internet.

At the same time, the internet itself has changed. Where once users flocked to websites and home pages created largely by institutions, the digital world has become an assemblage of individual applications and social media hubs. These “platforms” go by names like Flickr, Tumblr, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Ask.fm (last year’s trouble site) and, of course, Facebook. The existence of each is predicated on the public’s desire to share their thoughts, pictures, ideas, personal information and anything else they choose, usually using their phones.

Some of these are more popular than others, and most wane over time. But when the use of one of the apps or sites reaches a critical mass – and when the pictures and thoughts shared are intended to hurt – the results can be devastating.

Canadians are familiar with the stories of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, who took their own lives in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Both girls were victims of bullying both in person and online, where photos were circulated in ways that would not have been possible two decades previously.

Yik Yak didn’t even exist when the two girls died, but the importance of social media was already entrenched in teens’ lives. It’s only grown in the years since as smartphone use has increased, and apps and sites with new features present more challenges for administrators and counsellors.

James Parlee, a Youth Unlimited counsellor at Abbotsford senior secondary, says the main effect of social media has been to broaden the audience available to teens – and the shame associated with being the subject of a malicious slur or story.

“Bullying hasn’t changed, really, in … human history. It’s always been a thing. What has changed with social media is never before has so much of our lives been on display and to such a large group of people.”

That’s what happened with Yik Yak in schools, where entire populations of students were able to read about innuendo that may have once circulated only within a small group of friends.

“Once everybody started using it,” Voth said, “it started to get out of control.”

Yik Yak’s total anonymity only added to the free-for-all.

Some students impersonated other teens in malicious ways. Others just called fellow students names or slandered the reputations of girls.

“It was mostly personal vendettas or attacks about people, and usually something they were insecure about,” Palmer said.

Parlee said that’s consistent with many forms of online abuse where bullies don’t use their own names.

“As soon as you give people that cloak of anonymity, the last little vestiges of civilization go out the window,” he said.

Faceless online trolls posting hurtful comments sent a stream of Bateman students to counsellors and administrators to ask for help in quashing the app, according to Plantinga.

While the geo-fences likely helped, the same things that made Yik Yak so powerful – the anonymity of posters and the large number of readers – helped spell its local downfall. Within a week of its discovery, Bateman students had abandoned Yik Yak, Voth and Palmer said.

When Plantinga heard of the app, she downloaded it and wrote, “I thought Bateman was better than this.” She also talked to her class about the messages she was seeing.

Palmer said around half of the school’s teachers downloaded the app, possibly stoking a feeling that Yik Yak was no longer a hideout just for teens. There was the sense that a crackdown was coming from teachers and administrators, who were beginning to monitor the app themselves.

“Everyone got scared they were going to get in trouble,” Voth said.

A month later, pulling up Yik Yak on one’s phone near the school will turn up just a few posts, with few replies.

••••••••

But students are still using their phones.

School administrators know Yik Yak isn’t the first, and will not be the last, app to give public voice to some of the less appealing thoughts of teenagers.

For MEI principal Dave Neufeld, that knowledge underscores the need to focus on the reasons students air such thoughts in the first place.

“When we as an institution chase a particular piece of technology, that’s a race we’ll never get ahead of,” he said,  “The thing we talk about is student character, rather than a particular app.”

That work is also being done in the public school system, where around 1,100 students in Grades 6 through 8 will take a locally developed course this year called “Learning in a digital world,” through the Abbotsford Virtual School. The course, which is part of a pilot program, aims to teach students how to use the internet for educational purposes, how to protect oneself online, and how to be good digital citizens.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to keep up with the technology,” said Abbotsford Virtual School principal Brad Hutchinson, “but we want to work with the students to remind them that once something is posted online, it’s on there forever, you can’t take it back. And you’re really not anonymous.”

Hutchinson noted students venture into the social media world around Grade 6. And by Grade 7, they are much more involved. It was at that age that Amanda Todd was coerced into sending a revealing image of herself that was later widely shared.

Teachers, meanwhile, can attend courses on social media in Abbotsford and outside the district on pro-D days.

As for parents, even those not familiar with the latest apps, still have a role to play in discussing social media, privacy and general good citizenship, Parlee said.  And, parents can help foster the self-esteem and confidence a student needs to get past seeing oneself as the target of a hurtful comment.

“Kids live now in a digital glass fishbowl, and the pressure is absolutely huge.”

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