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Here’s the latest thing you need to be aware of online if you have teenagers

By Ashley Broadwater

As a parent, you may worry about your teen’s social media use. It’s no secret many teens love to be on their phones. To make matters worse, apps like Instagram breed comparison and insecurity.

Additionally, grooming, a type of abuse, is also a danger on social media. Basically, grooming is when older people trick younger people into engaging in sexual acts with them by being especially “kind.”

Keeping teens safe and well on social media gives parents a lot to keep up with — and worry about. One of the ones you may not have heard of disappeared, but is now back: It’s called Yik Yak. It is currently downloadable (again) in the app store and anyone with an iPhone can download it for free.

Mean girls gone digital

Yik Yak is an app where people — usually young people — can anonymously share gossip about people in their area. While it was originally created for college students, it became popular in high schools as well.

When I used the app as a teen, people could be vicious. They spread rumors about other people and included that person’s full name. More than once, I felt terrified that something would pop up about me, true or not. Plus, other posts often contained triggering content about self-harm or eating disorders that I found concerning and unhelpful.

But despite all of that negativity, I (for some reason) still wanted to be on the app. I yearned to see what people posted. I wanted to feel like I was as connected and “cool” as my peers on the app were.

To help parents whose teens feel the same way, Taffeta spoke with an expert about what you need to know about the app and keeping your teen safe.

What differentiates Yik Yak

To start, here’s some more background information on what Yik Yak is, according to the app itself: “On Yik Yak, anonymously connect with everyone within five miles… You can upvote or downvote yaks [posts] to show your like or dislike of the content.”

And according to the new owners, Yik Yak is supposed to be a place where people are equals, without the harmful labels they may face in everyday life.

This format differs greatly from other social media platforms. “Yik Yak is truly anonymous, which is unique to other popular apps because there are no profile pictures, names, or usernames attached to it,” said Brittany Morris, MSC, LSCW from Thriveworks in Chesapeake.

Why it’s dangerous

Morris explained what makes Yik Yak so unsafe. “It only allows you to see posts from others within a five-mile radius, which makes it a bit more dangerous than some other platforms where distance does not play a role in the user experience,” she said. For example, “groomers” can more easily meet up with teens since they’re in the same area.

The way people have explained the Yik Yak environment is also concerning. “Yik Yak has been described as a place with no rules, which makes it extremely concerning for parents of teens using it,” Morris said.

The worst of the wild (digital) west

Yik Yak has been quite threatening in the past. “This app has a history of bullying and even threats of physical harm to others, including bomb threats,” Morris shared. “The risk here is that there is little regulation regarding the content posted on this app, and the impact of cyberbullying and threats of harm can be long-lasting, especially for children and teens.”

The close distance presents another issue. “The five-mile radius of information means that the people the user is interacting with are very close, which again can be overwhelming. If the user has negative interactions with others, they are right in their backyard,” Morris explained.

While the anonymity piece can help with the safety aspect, these risks can still be a lot for teens to handle. “Overall, it could be an overwhelming place for children and teens to be spending their time online,” Morris said.

Yik Yak says it wants to improve

Yik Yak now has new owners who are redeveloping the app to be safer. They don’t want it to be a place where bullying, threats, and negativity run rampant.

On the website, they wrote their stance on bullying and hate speech, in which people can be immediately banned from the app after one “strike.” Posts with five downvotes are also removed from the feed. However, the specific details on how that happens — and how quickly — aren’t super clear.

However, as a start, the website does share mental health and safety resources for users that seem pretty thorough.

Keep an eye on it.

While Yik Yak is making helpful changes, it’s probably best to stay on the safe side — at least while the new version of the app finds its footing.

“I would say teens are better off not using this app at all, but if that is unavoidable, usage should be heavily monitored,” Morris said.

If your teen is on the app, Morris recommends monitoring your child’s use and mental health. “I would monitor it closely, if possible, and also monitor any changes in their emotional state,” she said. “Like many other social media platforms, it can create issues with self-esteem and self-identity for children and teens as they are trying to figure out who they are.”

Signs of depression in teens include random crying spells, irritability, loss of interest in hobbies, low self-esteem, self-criticism, thoughts of self-harm or suicide, and more.

Additionally, be on the lookout for signs that indicate your teen may be in an unsafe situation. Some examples are being extra secretive, freaking out about something they don’t want to share, sneaking out of the house, and more.

As you may know, teens sometimes believe they can handle situations themselves and are scared to tell their parents. They may especially feel this way when they turn 18, when they’re technically adults but very much still young.

In this case, it’s important to not show judgment or get angry with them instead focus on listening, showing compassion, considering psychiatric medication, checking in with your teen, and getting them professional help.

Final Notes

Ultimately, whether or not your teen uses this app is up to you and them. It’s hard to know at this point if Yik Yak is following through on the changes it promised, and if dangerous posts and situations can slip through the cracks. After all, social media is tricky, and Yik Yak has a concerning past. However, if your teen is using the app, know you aren’t powerless in helping them stay safe by monitoring them and showing you care.

About Ashley Broadwater

Ashley Broadwater is a freelance writer and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She's been published in POPSUGAR, Medium, and more. You'll find her writing about body positivity, relationships, mental health, and entertainment regularly.

View all posts by Ashley Broadwater