Yakking teens now have an app for that, worrying Chicago-area schools

Written By BY JON SEIDEL Staff Reporter Posted: 04/08/2014, 06:30am

Teenagers will always yak at school.

But their new, high-tech way to yak on their smartphones has caused old-fashioned headaches for leaders of Chicago-area high schools.

Students are signing up for the social media app Yik Yak. And their apparent abuse of the app has administrators quickly banning it from their schools’ wireless networks and sending cautionary letters to parents.

Yik Yak embraces anonymity and lets users post unsigned messages to a virtual bulletin board for the closest 500 users in a 5-mile radius to see.

Although its official rules prohibit users from bullying or naming names — and bans anyone “under college age” — school officials say it’s causing problems in high school classrooms around Chicago.

“We had a few students who did come forward [to complain],” said Niki Dizon, director of communications at New Trier Township High School in the northern suburbs.

New Trier officials found “a lot of inappropriate and hurtful” comments when they looked at the app, Dizon said. So an email went out to parents Wednesday afternoon.

“Unfortunately these apps make it impossible to trace the source of comments, and as a result teens often feel emboldened to target fellow students or make lewd or otherwise damaging posts,” said the letter, which was signed by the principals of New Trier’s Winnetka and Northfield campuses.

Yik Yak representatives did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Melvin Soto, assistant principal of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on Chicago’s Near West Side, said students complained that their first and last names were being published on the app along with negative comments. So an email went out to that school community Wednesday morning.

“Students found to be using the app to cause disruptions could face disciplinary action under the school’s code of conduct,” it said.

A similar email went out to parents at William Jones College Preparatory High School.

Cyber-bullying among teenagers is as old as the Internet. But Dizon said Yik Yak stands out because it uses the phone’s GPS device to pick out so-called yaks posted by users nearby.

“It’s concentrating anonymous comments within a very small location,” Dizon said. “That makes it a little different and something that we certainly wanted to make our parents aware of.”

Soto pointed out the app lets users rate the yaks, though. And he said he has encouraged students to promote positive messages on Yik Yak and through other social media networks. If Yik Yak goes away, he noted, another app will likely pop up to replace it.

“It’s not really the tool,” Soto said. “It’s how we use them.”

Email: jseidel@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SeidelContent

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