Attack of the Yak: The New Breed of App-Based Cyber Bullying

By Sarah Asch & Holly Parkin

Melanie scrolled through the funny comments on the app Yik Yak, laughing occasionally at posts she found relatable. All of a sudden, she had an idea. Before she really thought about it, she typed out her joke into the app, making a joke about a girl in her grade, and hit post. Almost immediately afterwards, Melanie regretted her decision. “It was so bad. I felt so bad. I said stuff about a girl in my grade. I said something about her…because I thought it was funny. That is the meanest thing I think I have ever said. I can’t believe I said that,” Melanie, a sophomore girl who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said about posted several bullying comments on the app Yik Yak before she realized just how hurtful the posts were. “I just felt so guilty,” she said. “It wasn’t even like I cared what other people would have thought about me if they found out that I said it…. I didn’t want to be disappointed in myself.” According to Melanie, almost immediately after posting her comment, she regretted it. “Even though it is hard to think, what you are doing is hurting people,” she said.

Yik Yak, a social media app created in December 2013, has become increasingly popular at Tam and across the country over the past several months. The app serves as an anonymous message board and shows posts to individual users based on their location.

Assistant Principal Wendy Stratton, who first learned of the app in late September, has taken action on the misuse of Yik Yak at Tam. “I got a parent email and then from there it was just like a domino effect,” Stratton said. “I got more names and more names, and actually since then it has been like a constant process of putting out fires.”

According to Stratton, the problem with Yik Yak, and cyber bullying in general, is how many people are inadvertently involved. “It creates a toxic culture. Like maybe a few people post something negative. But the problem in my opinion is that then you have how many dozens and dozens of people reading that, and not necessarily agreeing to it, but participating in it,” Stratton said. “That takes bullying to another level. Because in a way, these people who are participating and have the app and [are] reading, for their enjoyment, hateful posts are perpetuating that culture.”

Many students at Tam have been directly affected by the culture that Stratton described. Freshman Stella Dodd had many negative posts written about her after she came to school with hickeys. According to Dodd, her reaction to these posts was more surprised than dismayed. “My reaction was kind of just like, ‘Wow, I thought no one would care,’” she said. “And then after the first day, after it caused such a bad reaction, I covered up. A lot.” Despite the criticisms, Dodd was able to move on and not take the issue too personally. “I just kind of laugh it off,” she said “It doesn’t really bother me.”

Other students have not been able to shake off Yik Yak posts so easily. A sophomore, Charles, who spoke under the condition of anonymity for the fear that the bullying would get worse, does not think that Tam students should use Yik Yak. “It should be deleted,” Charles said. “I think that’s the right thing to do, because what do we use Yik Yak for? Nothing.”

Charles’ biggest concern with Yik Yak is the anonymous nature of the bullying. “One person can have one phone and spread 15 separate rumors, and you can look at it and think 15 different people said that [about you],” he said. Dodd and Charles both expressed the desire to know who was posting about them, so they could talk to them face to face. “I would just say to them: ‘We go to the same school. There’s no point in talking [trash] about each other,’” Charles said. “I come here to learn, not to spread rumors.”

According to Charles, because Yik Yak posts are also very public, it can make being targeted even harder to handle. “I think if you show that it hurts you, people are just going to do it even more,” he said. To others being bullied, he advised, “Just be strong, and don’t care about what people say, because a lot of it is just [noise]. I just come here to study and get my work done. And it’s weird that it’s happening to me out of anybody else. It’s sad, really, because I thought people at Tam weren’t like that.”

Yik Yak’s creators, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, did not intend the app to be used by high school students, and have taken steps to minimize use on high school campuses. CNN published a story in March of 2014 about the trouble that Yik Yak has caused in high schools across the country, and what Buffington and Droll intend to do about it. “One of the things we were planning to do is to essentially geo-sense every high school and middle school in America,” Buffington said to CNN. “So if [students] try to open the app in their school…it will disable it and the app won’t work.”

Despite the fact that Buffington and Droll have stated on multiple occasions that they intended Yik Yak to be used by college students, high school students are still able to access it. In a Tam News survey of over 200 students, about 50 percent of Tam students surveyed indicated that they had Yik Yak on their phones, while 39 percent said they did not. Only 11 percent said they had never heard of Yik Yak. Notably, about 29 percent of students surveyed marked that they have felt uncomfortable or threatened by something someone said to them on a social media site, or via a chat or email. In addition, 38 percent of those surveyed marked that they thought cyber bullying is a problem at Tam.

According to Stratton, the administration currently is using an informative angle to tackle the problem. “I try to use an educational [and] restorative approach,” Stratton said. “This is an educational environment and I think there is a level of ignorance that goes into participating in that behavior, so it’s sort of an awareness thing and an empathy building process. Encourage self-reflective behavior. That may sound weak but honestly people who engage in those behaviors need to learn.”

Of the 50 percent of students that said they had the app, 60.5 percent also said they had posted at some point. When asked to clarify the content of those posts, 19 percent of students reported that their post contained a comment about a group of Tam students such as “football players or junior girls.” Some students were more specific with their posts, about 15 percent said they had mentioned a Tam student by name in their post. About 12 percent said they had commented on a girl’s body type or behavior, and another 6 percent said they had commented on a boys body type or behavior.

“I think everyone who has Yik Yak has abused it the wrong way, honestly,” Melanie said. “It’s tempting. You’re thinking that other people are doing it and it’s funny.”

In a traditional bullying scenario, these individuals would be considered bystanders. A senior girl, Clara, who spoke anonymously for fear of social repercussions, was involved in a cyber bullying situation as a bystander at Mill Valley Middle School when her friend sent a bullying message over Facebook, and still remembers it well. “At first I thought it was funny. Then I realized it crossed a huge line,” Clara said. “I didn’t really like the person who the message was sent to, but it definitely wasn’t an appropriate thing to do.”

Like Melanie, Clara quickly discovered that her involvement led to more guilt than anything else. “It was stupid, immature, [I was] wondering why I ever did that,” Clara said. “Thinking about it from her perspective, that would be scary to receive that kind of message, especially from a fake account. It’s really upsetting, and I’m particularly upset that I didn’t do anything about it.”

According to Stratton, there are several steps to take when a student becomes a bystander. “One of the things that you can do to support somebody if you notice that they are being harassed on the app or on social media is to be kind to them and approach them and be like ‘Hey, I don’t support that,’” Stratton said. “As uncomfortable as it might make the person, I think it’s a proactive approach.”

According to Stratton, another thing a bystander can do is inform an adult. “I really encourage students to stand up for others and come forward when they are aware of these things because even though it may seem like something humorous or funny,” she said. “It’s just like any bullying scenario, one person standing up and one person sharing with an adult or somebody who can be involved in intervening is incredibly effective and important.”