Anonymous social networking apps: What parents can do about them

“It’s a disgrace to the human race.”

The talented, high school senior physically cringed as she described the app, adding, “it’s just horrifying what people put on there.”

Teens in my office have nearly universally agreed in the repulsive nature of one of the newest social networking apps called Yik Yak. The app is causing disruption within our local community; being described as a way to cyberbully, offend, and generally disgust anyone anonymously. App users, or Yakkers, write a post on the app which is sent to other Yakkers within a 5-mile radius, using the phone’s GPS.

The Yak is another addition to the growing number of mobile apps that bring anonymity to social networking. Users are exposed to — and contributing — sexually explicit content, abusive language, and personal attacks so severe that schools are alerting local parents.

Just last week, a high school principal sent an email to parents urging them to watch their teen’s personal devices and online activity for violations of the district’s cyber-citizenship policy. Students themselves shared concerns in the high school newspaper. In addition, schools across the country have blocked the app from Wi-Fi access. Students have even been arrested because of threats posted on the network.

I worry about the increasing popularity of teenagers engaging with anonymous social networking. Here’s why:

Anonymity’s cruel veil. Openly engaging with others without being identifiable can facilitate a highly volatile form of personal expression. We have seen time and time again the savagery that can emerge from online anonymity. In the developing teenager’s mind, the long-term consequences and repercussions of these anonymous postings are not physically capable of being understood. And in the most tragic cases, lives are lost by a string of keystrokes.

Unhealthy self-promotion. The ultimate goal of these networks is to feed our need for acceptance by creating a place to be noticed. We create content to stroke our own ego, and promote our vanity. The sites are a fast trap into a sense of “popularity” by posting something more clever, more cruel, or more shocking than then next guy. For a teenager, this self-serving environment within anonymous communities is exactly the opposite of the personal relationships, honesty, and genuine feedback required to develop healthy self-esteem and proper social responsibility.

No guarantees. With the rise of digital identification technology, I don’t believe it will be a matter of if content on anonymous networks will be identified, but more a matter of when. What will be the consequence of these posts getting publicly identified 5 weeks from now? 5 years from now? Will your teen be ultimately held accountable?

Action steps for parents

Define the expectations and boundaries you want to promote in your home. Talk about being a responsible digital citizen. Tell your teen the values you hold regarding social justice, and personal expression. Most importantly, practice these expectations in your own online activity, allowing your teen to witness what you feel to be appropriate — and inappropriate — digital interactions.

Enforce integrity. Have consequences in place should you find your teen posting damaging content online. Have the strength to take away online access if your teen is violating your family’s defined digital boundaries. Believe that technology is a privilege, not a right; and privileges are earned.

Openly monitor and actively restrict. Once a digital device is placed in your child’s hand, exercise your right as payer-of-the-bill to restrict functionality. Let your teen know that random phone/app/text checks will be occurring as long as you pay the bill. Then look at the phone together, monitoring for safe communication and appropriate contributions. As your teen proves responsible use, less restriction can be rewarded. Less parental vigilance, however, should never occur.

Bottom line: Yik Yak is certainly not the last app that will push social boundaries. Let conversations about responsible online behavior roll into each of your homes, and take active steps towards being responsible online parents. And as of now, I agree with Ms. Murphy, the high school principal, who says of Yik Yak, “Stop following it; stop looking at it; stop posting on it. If you can’t use it for good, stop using it.”

Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.

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