GSHS cracks down on anonymous chat app | PostIndependent.com

GSHS cracks down on anonymous chat app

Will Grandbois
wgrandbois@postindependent.com

Glenwood Springs High School on Thursday joined an estimated 85 percent of middle and high schools nationwide to block Yik Yak, a smartphone application that allows users to post locally sorted anonymous messages.

Anyone who tries to log in from GSHS receives an error. “You appear to be using this too close to a school,” the app informs them. “Yik Yak is for adults only.”

Adults have not been the primary demographic using the app in the Valley, however.

Until Thursday, anyone logging into the app from downtown Glenwood encountered an assortment of comments you’d probably associate with the bathroom wall at a high school.

“It should be called pre-calcuLOST because I have no clue what I’m doing,” one recent poster quipped.

But some used the app’s anonymity to sling insults.

“Does anyone have a McDonald’s employee shirt? I wanna dress like a Rifle graduate at school tomorrow,” someone wrote.

Worst are the personal attacks. Just this week, at least one GSHS student was the subject of comments not fit to print. For each negative comment, a host of replies rushed to defend the slandered student and call out the attacker.

“How about we all start putting funny yaks that are worth reading rather than hurtful ones?” read one post. “I’d much rather make someone laugh than cry.”

The problem posts come from a vocal minority, noted Pat Engle, GSHS dean of students.

“We have a fantastic school with fantastic kids,” he said.

That makes it that much harder to address the issue. Commenters are safe behind their anonymity, and lectures fall on mostly innocent ears.

Still, when a group of parents came to Engle with their concern, he took action, requesting the geofence to limit access from campus and encouraging parents to request that hateful comments be taken down. Yik Yak developers had the fence up within 24 hours, and several messages were quickly removed.

Yik Yak’s terms of service prohibit defamation, threats and abuse, and cofounder Brooks Buffington has been vocal in asserting that he didn’t envision the product, unveiled in 2013, as a bathroom stall.

“We wanted to enable people to be really connected with the people around you, even if you don’t know them. It’s like a virtual bulletin board, a hyper-local version of Twitter where people can use it to post information and everyone in the area can see it,” Buffington told IBTimes UK. “We don’t approve of bullying at all and hate to see our app being used in that way, so we’re doing everything we possibly can to prevent it from being misused.”

In an interview with TechCrunch, he defended the need for anonymity for free expression, but acknowledged the downsides, which have created issues across the country.

“Anonymity is a great thing — the whole reason why we made it is because when you’re anonymous, no one can judge you. But you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” he said.

Although Engle seemed relieved to have the app blocked on school property, he was the first to admit that Yik Yak is just enabling the behavior, not creating it.

Engle met personally with some students to discuss the potential ramifications if nasty invective was traced back to them — something Yik Yak can do with a court order or under certain emergency circumstances.

“We don’t want to be reactive, we want to be proactive,” Engle said.

He also hopes the school’s series of educational “character chats,” which began this week with a talk on cyber bullying, will help teach students respect.

“We want everybody to be on the same page about what our expectations are,” he said. “I would love for every parent that reads this to visit with their student, have some good, healthy conversations with about what’s going on, and even check out their phone.”

Glenwood High School isn’t the only area school to take a stand against Yik Yak.

In September, Jordana Rothberg of the Skier Scribbler, Aspen High School’s student newspaper, reported that administration had sent out an email to parents warning them about the app and encouraging their children to delete it.

Mariemma Uguccioni’s article in the November issue of Basalt High School’s Longhorn Roundup indicated that the Basalt High School also had a geofence, although she noted that the app is still accessible off school grounds.

In addition to an article by Katie Weimer, the November edition of the Roaring Fork High School Rampage includes an editorial on the subject attributed to the whole staff.

“The Rampage does not believe that the app’s use should be blocked or censored by the administration despite some of the potentially harmful posts,” read the editorial. “Instead, we want to encourage students to use the app appropriately.”

Whether a light touch or a heavy hand is more effective in controlling high school cyber bullying remains to be seen, but if Thursday’s Yik Yak traffic is any guide, GSHS’s attempts are having some success.

Among a handful of posts about the snow, someone, perhaps off campus for lunch, acknowledged the sudden quiet.

“Yik Yak is dead,” the person wrote.


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