This past fall, Yik Yak whipped up serious digital drama at two Danville high school campuses.
After suddenly discovering the social networking app with its hyperlocal focus, users at San Ramon Valley and Monte Vista high schools took advantage of its anonymous posting feature to gossip and “pile on” other students or vent about school and everything else. Most dramatic of all, unidentified students used it to wage a contest — which school would be hit by the most false fire alarms.
As students, school and police officials tell it, warnings also went up on Yik Yak just before a series of fire alarms interrupted classes at both campuses over a two-day period. That’s just one of the many stories of bad behavior flourishing in what Jim Steyer, CEO of the Common Sense Media, calls the “Wild West” of rapidly shifting social media technology.
It seems that a headline comes out every week warning the public about some new app that promises young people exciting new ways to express themselves, be creative, chat with friends or expand their social circles. But those stories also chronicle the perils associated with apps such as Yik Yak, Whisper, Ask.fm or Snapchat. Perils include “Gossip Girl”-like reputation shredding, anonymous bullying, unhealthy oversharing and kids giving up private information, not just to predatory strangers but to companies building extensive user profiles.
Now that it’s summer, many kids and teens are spending more time than ever online, prompting experts to advise parents to become familiar with some of the new products and reacquaint their families with basic principles of online safety.
Certainly, unhealthy and hurtful online behavior is nothing new. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other established sites continue to be venues for such phenomena as “Twitter beefs,” where two or more kids insult one another in full view of their followers, according to Lauren Brown, school program coordinator for the Danville police. She’s also seen youngsters getting their sense of self-worth tied up in the popularity of their Instagram posts.
“If they post something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, they actually get upset and sometimes depressed,” she said. “This phenomenon has been getting more prevalent and is very worrisome to me.”
Recent concerns also turn to the growing number of apps that allow kids to send messages, images and videos, create anonymous online personas or even find people to meet up with. To some extent, these apps allow teens to evade adult monitoring, either because their parents don’t know about them or because they are designed to hide all conversations within the app.
Steyer and other experts understand how daunting it can be to stay current with every new online trend.
“I’m paid to write about technology, and even I can’t keep up with it,” says Larry Magid, a technology writer, columnist for this newspaper and CEO and co-founder of ConnectSafely.org, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to education on Internet safety, privacy and security.
For this reason, Magid said, it can be useful for parents to focus less on specific products and more on the general principles of safe online behavior.
“The bottom line is that you need to think critically,” he said.
Amethyst Thomas, presentation coordinator for the San Ramon Valley-based nonprofit Teen Esteem, said new technology provides “tons of opportunities for parents to help their children make wise decisions about how they use their devices.”
She adds that Apple, for example, offers excellent parental controls on its devices — though parents themselves have to seek out the information.
Common Sense Media encourages kids to be respectful “digital citizens.” That means to visit a site’s safety section with their parents, avoid people they don’t know online and keep certain information private, such as addresses and phone numbers.
Despite all the alarming news, Magid sees silver linings.
He thinks Yik Yak and other anonymous question-and-answer apps can serve a useful purpose if used responsibly. If teens are struggling with personal issues, from school stress to sexual orientation, or they want to explore religious or political views that wouldn’t be popular in their social circles, they can post their thoughts and potentially receive online support.
Research also shows that most youths behave well online and enjoy positive experiences. He cites a 2011 study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project showing that 69 percent of social media-using teens say their peers are mostly kind to one another on social network sites.
Of the dozen San Ramon Valley High students interviewed earlier this month about digital drama, all said they were turned off by people being negative online. They also were annoyed by the Yik Yak-related fire alarm pranks.
“I think it’s stupid, honestly, when people don’t have anything better to do than go online and say rude things anonymously,” said Jacob, who will be a sophomore. He declined to give his last name.
If most students are good online citizens, that’s likely because of their parents, the Pew study also found.
About 86 percent of respondents, ages 12 to 17, received advice about how to be responsible online from their parents, the study concluded. Said Amanda Lenhart, the study’s lead researcher: “Parents really are quite important.”