Anonymous social media challenges communities

By Maureen Smith
The increasingly anonymous or perceived short-term nature of some social media outlets are causing problems on campuses across the nation. Apps such as Yik Yak, a message system that allows users to post anything without identifying themselves and Snapchat, on which users send photos which the app says will self-delete after a short time, have opened the door to bullying, sexting and other abusive behaviors, according to numerous news reports.

The problem, according to Jean Smith Vaughn, of the Mississippi Attorney General’s office, is that these claims are not true. Law enforcement can track down the identity of a poster and photos can be frozen or even recovered on a phone. “If you make a file, it creates a digital fingerprint on your phone,” she said.

Yik Yak and other messaging programs such as Kik use geolocation so the program only allows users within a certain radius to see posts. That same geolocation can be used to pinpoint a user and then the ‘fingerprint’ can be extracted from the phone, even if the user tries to delete the app.

On Wednesday, March 5, Keith Barnes, Madison St. Joe principal sent out an email to parents about Yik Yak. It read, in part, “The St. Joseph Catholic school administration has been following news about Yik Yak and monitoring for its presence on our campus for the past three weeks.  Unfortunately, late this past week, we became aware that our community has discovered the app and has begun to use it inappropriately.” Barnes went on to say while the school would continue its efforts to eliminate the app parents must also be part of the solution. “If you do not want your child involved in this as a contributor, the only thing you can do is to make efforts to ensure that he or she does not have or use the app.  Perhaps more importantly, please have conversations with your children about the dangers of using their mobile devices in ways that can hurt other people,” he wrote.

Smith Vaughn agrees. “Sit down and talk to your child. It’s that one-on-one contact that’s important,” she said. The State Attorney General’s office offers training focused on internet and social media safety, bullying and more to teachers and parents. She says time and again the most effective solution is keeping an open line of communication. She tells parents to ask their kids specifically about what’s happening at school on social media and not to be discouraged if they don’t answer the first time. At some of her trainings she will wait after the session and some of the kids who would not speak during the session will return to talk to her. “A lot of times, they won’t tell you immediately, but if you wait, the kids will come back,” she said. The same holds true for parents.

She also emphasized that one poor decision can have lasting consequences. In Mobile, Ala., a 14-year old and a 16-year old are both facing charges after they posted separate threats about schools there on Yik Yak. The developers helped investigators find the youth. They claim their app is meant only for people older than 17, but there is currently no way to verify a user’s age incorporated in the app. One of Yik Yak’s founders told CNN programmers plan to geolocate every middle and high school in the country and block the app from those locations, but this feature has not been added and critics point out it will only limit use while students are physically on campus.

“I tell parents and kids the internet is forever. Once you have put something out there you have no control over where it goes,” said Smith Vaughn. While criminal charges may be an extreme example, Smith Vaughn pointed out that potential employers and even colleges and universities are looking at students’ social media presence. Even if a student deletes something he or she has posted, they cannot delete re-posts, forwards or other repetitions. “Snapchat is a favorite of child pornographers,” she said. Because the photos posted to Snapchat claim to disappear some teens may be tempted to post inappropriate photos of themselves, but once a pornographer gets a screen shot that photo can be sent out across other channels.

Vickie Carollo, diocesan director of the Office for the Protection of Children, keeps in touch with the Attorney General’s office in an effort to keep up-to-date with trends in cyber-crime and bullying since they may be signs of or gateways to abuse. She also emphasizes that self-education and clear communication are critical. “Parents have to be educated on the safety of social media. They have to be vocal and engage in frank and continuing dialogue with their children about the dangers of inappropriate usage of social media,” she said.

“Talk to your children about their activities online and on their smartphones and set clear boundaries for what they are and are not allowed to do,” she added saying sometimes just setting those boundaries helps students think twice about what they will post.
She encourages parents to be online with their children — knowing their social media channels and how to navigate them so the children know their parents will see what is happening there.

Bullying rises to a new level on some of these platforms. Because students think they are anonymous they believe they can post vicious comments about one another. Smith-Vaughn explained that even something meant to be a joke can cause problems for the poster. “Taunting and bullying each other to the point that a child may not want to go to school falls under a civil rights-era law and is a misdemeanor. We can prosecute that in youth court,” she explained.

Carollo explained that teasing turns into bullying when “unwanted aggressive behaviors among school-aged children involves a real or perceived power imbalance” or a real or perceived threat. She said it is important to encourage kids to report bullying to a trusted adult and talk to kids about strategies to keep themselves or their friends safe, such as staying near other kids or adults and talking about what they see or experience in schools.
Smith-Vaughn keeps a list of popular social media apps to circulate among her investigators and to use in her workshops with parents, educators and students. She said it is constantly evolving. Right now her list includes:

Messaging/microblogging apps: Yik Yak, Twitter, facebook, What’s App, Wickr.
Video and music apps and websites: You Tube, Vine, Spotify.
Photo and photo-message apps: Instagram, Snapchat,
Location apps: FourSquare.

The Attorney General’s office has a number of downloadable resources on the website Scroll down to the Cybercrime section.