A Gossip App Brought My High School to a Halt

Here’s an article from New York Magazine about social networking gone awry at Staples HS in Westport.  Warning, the article contains some graphic language.

M., a high school junior, was rushing to class last Thursday morning when a friend stopped to ask if she was okay. Taken by surprise, she laughed and answered that she was fine. Continuing down the hall, she was met by strange glances and similar inquiries. She was at a loss. What had she done to become a celebrity overnight? It wasn’t until she sat down for her first period class that someone finally told her about Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is an application that allows individuals to post comments anonymously, essentially operating as a Twitter without handles. Sitting at her desk, M. grabbed a friend’s phone and began scrolling through a feed of posts.

“L. M. is affiliated with Al Qaeda.”

“The cheer team couldn’t get uglier.”

“K. is a slut.”

“J. N. is a fag.”

“The fact that O. P. has diabetes makes me happy.”

“S. D. + 10 years = trailer park.”

“Nobody is taking H. to prom because nobody has a forklift.”

“J. T.’s gonna get lynched at SMU.”

“How long do we think before A. B. kills herself?”

“N. likes the taste of thick pussy and wheelchair pussy.”

“99% of guys have tits bigger than J.”

“I probably heard about 10–15 nasty things written about me, some of which I couldn’t even finish reading,” M. says. “M. will let anybody anally finger her.” “M. gave dome for $6.” She had come under more intense attack than most students, but her experience on Thursday was similar to those of dozens of students at Staples High School.

I’m a student at Staples, too. It’s a good, medium-sized public school in Westport, Connecticut. We don’t walk through metal detectors on our way to class, and the main job of our school “security force” is to hand out tickets when students’ Jeeps and Audis park in staff parking spaces. John Dodig, our genial and openly gay principal, greeted my freshman class in 2010 by welcoming us to a school that was “different,” a school that rose above petty high school malice. And as a senior, I’ve found Staples to be a happy, functional, though complexly hierarchical place. The three most popular senior girl groups are the Bots, the Bedfords, and Acrimonious. There are Albone and the Rowdies, both popular senior boy groups. There are the Amigos (popular junior girls), the Cool Asians (none of whom are actually Asian), the Fairies (the soccer team, not the theater kids), the Players (the theater kids, not the soccer team), and many others.

Yik Yak arrived at Staples from Fairfield, the neighboring town, by way of the Dominican Republic, where students from Staples joined students from Fairfield Warde High School on a service trip earlier this month. Fairfield had already been rocked by the app. Students described a scene of pandemonium that eventually resulted in legal action against some who were charged with cyber-bullying. After the service trip was over and the volunteers returned to Staples, word of Yik Yak spread fast.

When you watch stupid movies about teenagers in high school, you roll your eyes at the classic fallout scene in which the hallways are filled with whispering students all gossiping about the same thing. This was exactly what Thursday afternoon looked like at Staples. “Walking through the hallways, everyone was staring at their phones,” says one target. In the course of a few periods, the most private, deplorable thoughts of the Staples student body had been put into writing. And the worst part was that no one knew who was writing this stuff — maybe the asshole you’d expect it from, or maybe the quiet girl in the back of Spanish class.

In the period after lunch, everyone was waiting for the next post. Feeds were refreshed; new batches of unsigned obscenities entertained the student body. “I remember sitting there in class refreshing the page, waiting for someone to say something horrible and awful about me,” said one junior girl. Ms. S. was fully aware of the cause for her European History class’s distraction, as apparently many teachers had downloaded and perused the app during their lunch period. With each post, another girl left class to cry in the bathroom, vent to her guidance counselor, or drive home. “I was shocked, mortified, and embarrassed,” M. says. “I then called my mom and told her I was leaving school.”

During the last period of the day, a demoralized voice came over the loudspeaker: Principal Dodig had decided to address the school. Staples has dealt with social media explosions in the past, most notably the spread of Snapchat sexting and a Facebook cyber-bullying incident whose sexual depravity made high school boys blush. But I’ve never seen Principal Dodig as upset before. Between his sentences were heavy sighs and moments of reflection.

“To all the students in the school, I urge you at least not to look at the site,” he said. “I’ve heard several people today have read some things about them and they’re in tears. Don’t look at it. And if you don’t see it, it won’t bother you.”

His announcement gave Yik Yak new momentum.

“Mr. Dodig molested me with a weed wacker.”

“John Dodig touched my no-no parts.”

*

Yik Yak has been available for download since last November, and anonymity has existed since the dawn of the internet. So why did the app literally bring Staples to a halt last week? Maybe it was a form of emotional release for students who were beginning to relax after months of academic stress. Perhaps it was a way for students to get their bitterness out about their classmates, teachers, and administrators. Or perhaps it was simply the newest, must-have social media thing.

One student told Inklings, the school newspaper, that “kids are just mean these days, and they needed a new way to insult each other.” Maybe. I remember when Formspring and Honesty Box infiltrated my middle school hallways. But Yik Yak felt different. It wasn’t just a new tool for the school’s bullies; it was also an equalizer. No one was safe, regardless of his or her place on the social pyramid. Bots and Amigos were targeted just as much, if not more, than the gays, the fat kids, the nerds, the friendless. “K. sounds like she has a cock in her mouth 24/7,” went a typical attack on an Amigo. Staples Guidance counselor Victoria Capozzi says that one student, prior to finding himself the target of a homophobic post, was completely unaware that his peers even questioned his sexuality. Suddenly, the social 1 percent was subject to the same sort of cyber torment that had in the past been directed at the students at the bottom of the pyramid. Yik Yak gave everyone a chance to take down enemies, reveal secrets, or make shit up in order to obliterate reputations. You didn’t need internet popularity in order for your post to be seen; you just needed to be within a 1.5-mile radius of your target and your audience.

Over the weekend, targets turned to their friend groups for comfort. Group chats were flooded. A sample from one of the popular groups:

“Why am I getting ripped apart?”

“I feel like I’m in Mean Girls.”

“I was really rattled and red in school, I left for last period.”

“I cried.”

“H. will be forever known as the fat girl.”

M. still wasn’t in school on Friday. A senior girl who had also been attacked on Yik Yak told me over the weekend that she dreaded going back. “How do you look a classmate or teacher in the eye knowing that they might have read something about you? Or worse, they might have written something about you?”

Some students want to see the IP addresses of the authors identified. I would too, though I have the depressing suspicion that the students who wrote the worst posts don’t care about the lasting impact that they have had on peoples lives. In conversations with our teachers, guidance counselors, and parents, we constantly hear, “We didn’t have this when we were growing up.” Well, neither did we. Yik Yak and its capacity for anonymous, targeted destruction is new to all of us. By the end of the week Yik Yak had been blocked on Staples property, but it also had raised $1.5 million in funding. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a competitor to Yik Yak on everyone’s phones next week. Are we just supposed to ignore it? I see no solution in sight, and personally, I am thrilled to be graduating in a few weeks.

*Names have been anonymized, and one or two details have been altered slightly, to not make it even worse.

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Girl’s Suicide Points to Rise in Apps Used by Cyberbullies

The New York Times

A disturbing article about a middle school aged girl in Florida.  A good reminder to have conversations with your daughters about their use of social media, especially ask.fm, Instagram and Snapchat.  All are invited to attend Middle School Technology Night on Monday, September 16 at 7 pm for more information on the topic.

Brian Blanco for The New York Times

A memorial for 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick has sprouted at the abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Fla., where she committed suicide.

By 
Published: September 13, 2013 723 Comments

MIAMI — The clues were buried in her bedroom. Before leaving for school on Monday morning, Rebecca Ann Sedwick had hidden her schoolbooks under a pile of clothes and left her cellphone behind, a rare lapse for a 12-year-old girl.

Rebecca Sedwick

Lance Speere for The New York Times

Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, said she had no idea that her daughter, who died this week, was being cyberbullied by about 15 middle-school children, a problem that first arose and was addressed last year.

Inside her phone’s virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to “That Dead Girl” and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland and leaped to the ground, the Polk County sheriff said.

In jumping, Rebecca became one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened and taunted online, mostly through a new collection of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications. Her suicide raises new questions about the proliferation and popularity of these applications and Web sites among children and the ability of parents to keep up with their children’s online relationships.

For more than a year, Rebecca, pretty and smart, was cyberbullied by a coterie of 15 middle-school children who urged her to kill herself, her mother said. The Polk County sheriff’s office is investigating the role of cyberbullying in the suicide and considering filing charges against the middle-school students who apparently barraged Rebecca with hostile text messages. Florida passed a law this year making it easier to bring felony charges in online bullying cases.

Rebecca was “absolutely terrorized on social media,” Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said at a news conference this week.

Along with her grief, Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done. She complained to school officials for several months about the bullying, and when little changed, she pulled Rebecca out of school. She closed down her daughter’s Facebook page and took her cellphone away. She changed her number. Rebecca was so distraught in December that she began to cut herself, so her mother had her hospitalized and got her counseling. As best she could, Ms. Norman said, she kept tabs on Rebecca’s social media footprint.

It all seemed to be working, she said. Rebecca appeared content at her new school as a seventh grader. She was gearing up to audition for chorus and was considering slipping into her cheerleading uniform once again. But unknown to her mother, Rebecca had recently signed on to new applications — ask.fm, and Kik and Voxer — which kick-started the messaging and bullying once again.

“I had never even heard of them; I did go through her phone but didn’t even know,” said Ms. Norman, 42, who works in customer service. “I had no reason to even think that anything was going on. She was laughing and joking.”

Sheriff Judd said Rebecca had been using these messaging applications to send and receive texts and photographs. His office showed Ms. Norman the messages and photos, including one of Rebecca with razor blades on her arms and cuts on her body. The texts were full of hate, her mother said: “Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly.”

One said, “Can u die please?” To which Rebecca responded, with a flash of resilience, “Nope but I can live.” Her family said the bullying began with a dispute over a boy Rebecca dated for a while. But Rebecca had stopped seeing him, they said.

Rebecca was not nearly as resilient as she was letting on. Not long before her death, she had clicked on questions online that explored suicide. “How many Advil do you have to take to die?”

In hindsight, Ms. Norman wonders whether Rebecca kept her distress from her family because she feared her mother might take away her cellphone again.

“Maybe she thought she could handle it on her own,” Ms. Norman said.

It is impossible to be certain what role the online abuse may have played in her death. But cyberbullying experts said cellphone messaging applications are proliferating so quickly that it is increasingly difficult for parents to keep pace with their children’s complex digital lives.

“It’s a whole new culture, and the thing is that as adults, we don’t know anything about it because it’s changing every single day,” said Denise Marzullo, the chief executive of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville, who works with the schools there on bullying issues.

No sooner has a parent deciphered Facebook or Twitter or Instagram than his or her children have migrated to the latest frontier. “It’s all of these small ones where all this is happening,” Ms. Marzullo said.

In Britain, a number of suicides by young people have been linked to ask.fm, and online petitions have been started there and here to make the site more responsive to bullying. The company ultimately responded this year by introducing an easy-to-see button to report bullying and saying it would hire more moderators.

“You hear about this all the time,” Ms. Norman said of cyberbullying. “I never, ever thought it would happen to me or my daughter.”

Questions have also been raised about whether Rebecca’s old school, Crystal Lake Middle School, did enough last year to help stop the bullying; some of it, including pushing and hitting, took place on school grounds. The same students also appear to be involved in sending out the hate-filled online messages away from school, something schools can also address.

Nancy Woolcock, the assistant superintendent in charge of antibullying programs for Polk County Schools, said the school received one bullying complaint from Rebecca and her mother in December about traditional bullying, not cyberbullying. After law enforcement investigated, Rebecca’s class schedule was changed. Ms. Woolcock said the school also has an extensive antibullying campaign and takes reports seriously.

But Ms. Norman said the school should have done more. Officials told her that Rebecca would receive an escort as she switched classes, but that did not happen, she said.

Rebecca never boarded her school bus on Monday morning. She made her way to the abandoned Cemex plant about 10 minutes away from her modest mobile home; the plant was a place she had used as a getaway a few times when she wanted to vanish. Somehow, she got past the high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, which is now a memorial, with teddy bears, candles and balloons. She climbed a tower and then jumped.

“Don’t ignore your kids,” Ms. Norman said, “even if they seem fine.”

Lance Speere contributed reporting from Lakeland, Fla., and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.

Warning: Negative Social Networking via Ask.fm

Pupils and parents warned over social networking website linked to teen abuse

  • Schools across the country are sending out letters advising pupils not to use Ask.fm
  • Site lets anyone see details of boys and girls as young as 13, then post comments or questions
  • There is no way to report offensive comments
  • Has become linked to a number of recent teen suicides

By MARTIN BECKFORD

PUBLISHED: 21:03 EST, 12 January 2013

Pupils and parents are being warned by head teachers about the dangers of a rapidly growing social networking site that puts teenagers at risk of vicious anonymous abuse.

Schools across the country are sending out letters advising pupils not to use Ask.fm, which has more than 30 million users around the world and has been linked to suicides and serious bullying.

The website lets anyone see the names, photographs and personal details of boys and girls as young as 13, then post comments or questions on their profile pages that range from insults to sexual advances and threats of violence.

Warning: Pupils and parents are being told about the dangers of a rapidly growing social networking site that puts teenagers at risk of anonymous abuseWarning: Pupils and parents are being told about the dangers of a rapidly growing social networking site that puts teenagers at risk of anonymous abuse

Unlike other services such as Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive comments, increase privacy settings or find out who is behind anonymous bullying.

The website is based in Latvia, making it even more difficult for police to take action, while its owners dismiss any problems with the site as the result of British and Irish children being more cruel than those from other countries.

Jim Gamble, head of security consultancy Ineqe, said: ‘Ask.fm has become associated with some of the worst forms of cyberbullying and has been linked to a number of recent teen suicides in Ireland and the US.

‘It is almost a stalker’s paradise. In cases like this young people need protection from those who exploit internet anonymity to intimidate, isolate and bully.’

Uncontrolled: Unlike other services such as Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive comments, increase privacy settings or find out who is behind anonymous bullyingUncontrolled: Unlike other services such as Facebook and Twitter, there is no way to report offensive comments or find out who is behind anonymous bullying

Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive of the charity BeatBullying, said: ‘The tool that enables it to be anonymous can facilitate young people to say things that they might not say face to face or if their names were attached to it. So it releases their inhibitions, which can be very dangerous.

‘Sites like Ask.fm lack even the most basic child safety mechanisms or reporting protocols. They are of huge concern to us and the young people we work with.’

Founder Mark Terebin said: ‘We only have this situation in Ireland and the UK most of all. It seems that children are more cruel in these countries.’

 

Middle Schoolers and Social Networking

While social networking has many positive benefits, some middle school aged children around the country continue to struggle to make good choices on the Internet.  We recently learned about the site ask.fm, which allows members to send and receive anonymous comments and questions.  Many middle school students also use the mobile app Snapchat, which allows members to post photos and videos that disappear after a few seconds.

I recommend that you have a conversation with your daughter about her safe and responsible use of these sites.  I don’t recommend that any of the girls should use ask.fm; I can’t imagine much good that can come from a site that invites anonymous comments and questions.

Read below for some information on Snapchat:

Snapchat: Sexting tool, or the next Instagram?

Doug Gross, CNN
By Doug Gross, CNN
updated 9:20 AM EST, Thu January 3, 2013 | Filed under: Mobile
Snapchat is a fast-growing mobile app that lets users share photos and videos that quickly disappear.
Snapchat is a fast-growing mobile app that lets users share photos and videos that quickly disappear.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Competition from Facebook Poke may have spurred popularity of mobile app Snapchat
  • Snapchat lets users send images or videos that disappear after a few seconds
  • Popular with young users, Snapchat has a reputation as a “sexting” tool
  • Creators downplay its use to send nude pictures, say short-term sharing is fun

(CNN) — You may not have heard of Snapchat. But if there are teenagers or 20-somethings in your life, it’s a safe bet that they have.

Snapchat is a mobile app which lets users share images or videos that disappear after a few seconds. That’s right — they vanish forever in the time it takes you to read a tweet.

In a little over a year since it was released by a Stanford student and his recently graduated business partner, Snapchat has has quietly amassed millions of users and now claims to process more than 30 million messages a day. Some bloggers have called it the “next Instagram.”

Not bad for a mobile tool which, rightly or wrongly, is often cited for one very specific ability — the “sexting” of naughty images to other users. In an age when young people are constantly being warned not to post inappropriate things online, Snapchat offers a degree of freedom by letting users share unfiltered thoughts or images without much fear of reprisal.

“Like most people born before the 1990s, I’m not a Snapchat user, and I’ve long assumed the worst about the app — that combining cameras; young people; and secret, self-destructing messages could only mean trouble,” wrote Slate’s Farhad Manjoo last week.

But increasingly, he writes, it appears possible that “teenagers are more likely using the app to safely explore the sort of silly, unguarded, and sometimes unwise ideas that have always occupied the teenage brain … in a manner that won’t haunt them forever. In other words, they’re chatting with Snapchat precisely because it’s not like chatting with Facebook.”

Not to be outdone, Facebook last month actually launched a virtually identical social app called Facebook Poke, a mobile re-imagining of one of the site’s earliest, and ultimately most ridiculed, features. But instead of siphoning users from Shapchat, Facebook’s move appears instead to have launched the upstart app to new heights.

Both apps let users send images or short videos and messages via their smartphones. The sender can choose how long the message will be visible — up to 10 seconds — before it self-destructs.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly was part of the team that coded the Poke app, currently available only on Apple’s iOS system, in only a couple of weeks. A family photo posted by sister Randi Zuckerberg purportedly showed their family playing with the app over the holidays.

But if Facebook was looking to flex its billion-user muscle to take over the instant-chat market, it doesn’t appear to be working.

On Thursday, Snapchat was the sixth-most popular free app for Apple’s mobile devices. Facebook Poke wasn’t in the top 100. As Forbes said in a recent headline, “the kids like SnapChat because it’s NOT Facebook.”

A newer version of Snapchat for Google’s Android devices sat at a respectable No. 33 in the Google Play store, ahead of stalwarts like Draw Something, Spotify, Fandango and Amazon Mobile. Facebook Poke isn’t available for Android.

A look by analytics firm Topsy showed that mentions of Snapchat on Twitter spiraled to more than 212,000 on New Year’s Day, up from about 16,000 on December 20, the day before Facebook introduced Poke. Facebook Poke got 1,822 mentions on January 1, according to Topsy.

So, does that mean young, socially savvy users are sending millions of racy pictures of themselves through cyberspace every day?

It’s difficult to say. Technological advances and nudie shots have shared a strong, if secretive, relationship for centuries. From the printing press to pay-per-view to VCRs, new tech (particularly the kind that creates new levels of privacy) has always been followed closely by folks figuring out how to personally or professionally use it to get dirty.

There are clear, and sometimes ugly, signs that sexting is common on Snapchat.

“Snapchat Sluts,” a Tumblr blog full of nude and semi-nude images, was started up last month by a “party photographer” who says he put out an open call for salacious shots on Twitter and was overwhelmed by the response. Another Snapchat-themed blog on Tumblr is filled with complaints about male users sharing photos of their genitalia.

Snapchat users may think their naughty images will never come back to haunt them. But people can still grab screenshots from their phones, even though both Snapchat and Facebook Poke notify the sender if the recipient of an image takes a shot of it.

And last week, Buzzfeed exposed an apparent security flaw that it says lets recipients retrieve videos sent via Snapchat.

All of which should be bad news when young people and questionable decisions collide with the dark alleys of the Internet, where even the most ill-gotten of sleaze is posted.

Snapchat did not respond to an interview request from CNN. But in one of only a handful of interviews he’s given since launching, Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel told TechCrunch he thinks the sex talk about his app is overblown.

“I’m not convinced that the whole sexting thing is as big as the media makes it out to be,” he told TechCrunch. “I just don’t know people who do that. It doesn’t seem that fun when you can have real sex.”

But he also acknowledged to TechCrunch that the idea for the app, which he and Bobby Murphy hashed out after meeting at Stanford’s Kappa Sigma fraternity house, was partly inspired by U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s unfortunate decision to share racy photos via Twitter.

So, if not for naughty bits, what exactly is the purpose of sending images and videos that rapidly disappear?

In a September blog post celebrating its first anniversary, Team Snapchat shared a vision that comes off as downright wholesome.

“We believe in sharing authentic moments with friends,” it read. “It’s not all about fancy vacations, sushi dinners, or beautiful sunsets. Sometimes it’s an inside joke, a silly face, or greetings from a pet fish.

“There is value in the ephemeral,” the post continues. “Great conversations are magical. That’s because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved.”