Researchers are Tackling Online Anonymity

Anonymous-ish app Yik Yak isn’t dead yet, but there are indications that it may be headed in that direction. We think they’ll survive in some form, but the changes they have made since they launched in 2013 speak to to the struggle they have had to outlive their initial burst of popularity.

Rutgers Yik YakWhen Yik Yak started out, all posts were anonymous. The location of the user who posted was and is central to how Yik Yak works – each Yik Yak “community” is defined as all user within a certain radius, regardless of whether they know each other. Since the initial iteration of Yik Yak was totally anonymous, any user’s identity was impossible to pinpoint unless it was offered.

A lot has changed since 2013. Actually, a lot has changed in 2016.

In March, Yik Yak introduced optional “handles” or user names. With that update, users were required to select a user name. The name could be their real name or something else, but they were not required to use that name when posting. From what we saw, few people both chose their real name and used it when posting, so Yik Yak continued to be mostly anonymous.

In April, the company introduced messaging. The world didn’t need another messaging app, but apparently the theory was that now that you have an identity, someone who likes your posts might want to privately reach out to you. We have no idea how much traction they got with messaging.

In August, the company took its latest step in ditching full anonymity, requiring users to post with their handle. Yik Yak is anonymous no more, although people still might not know who is behind your screen name.

Now researchers are digging in to just how anonymous users are, even when they don’t use their real name. Professors at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and NYU Shanghai are presenting research this week focused on Yik Yak’s GPS system. By using Yik Yak and tricking their own devices into thinking they were at various locations on a campus, they were able to use machine learning to pinpoint with great accuracy which building Yik Yak posts were coming from.

By their logic, if their machine learning techniques were able to pinpoint the location of posts, identification of actual users will not be far behind.

We understand that there are some benefits to posting anonymously, including enhanced freedom of expression. We caution social media users, however, that it is inevitable that technology will catch up at some point, and the perceived “safety” of anonymity will disappear.

Whether social media users, especially young ones, are posting online suing their real name or anonymously, there is always the possibility that your identity will be found out.

 

 

If your teen or tween is active online and you are having trouble keeping up, we can help. We respect your kids’ privacy and give you the tools you need to be a better digital parent. The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). Ongoing monitoring is $15 per month and you can cancel at any time. Click here to sign up today!

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

 

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

Yik Yak No Longer Anonymous

Back in March, we wrote a post titled “Yik Yak Is No Longer Fully Anonymous”. In it, we described how Yik Yak, which was formerly a fully anonymous, location based message board, was allowing users the option of choosing a handle. Handles could be your real name or whatever screen name you chose.

This week, bigger changes are afoot. As of today, Yik Yak users are required to choose a handle, their handle will be visible each time they post, and other users are shown a (partial?) list of the Yakkers around them when they’re logged in.

Yik Yak logoWhy the change?

Yik Yak has had more than its share of problems and bad behavior in the past, from cyberbullying to teacher bashing to users looking for drugs and alcohol hookups. It makes some sense that attaching an identity to user posts may cut down on some of the bad behavior.

There is also the element of discovery. If users see another Yakker in their area who posts content in line with their interests, they may make a connection.

Will handles eliminate all the bad behavior? Almost certainly not. Users can easily change their handle (I just did). Users can establish a second account for their hijinks. It looks to us like Yik Yak is becoming a location based Twitter knockoff, which incidentally has been notoriously difficult to manage and grow, and has huge problems with trolls and abuse.

Incidentally, on the topic of handles, back in March when we reviewed the original change, I changed my handle to my real name, assuming that I’d never use it or be identified as a Yik Yak user. Today I changed it to a nonsense handle that is in no way associated with me. If your teen also changed to his real name and wishes to post pseudonymously, he should do the same.

This highlights another issue with forums that allow users to post anonymously. They can, and do, change the rules, and those posts you thought were anonymous could become part of your permanent digital footprint. (Maybe not in this case exactly, but you get the point).

Yik Yak began as a forum to post nonsense, jokes and questions for those around you. Sometimes the trolls get the upper hand. We don’t expect that to change much.

 

If you are worried that your teen or tween is at risk, we can help. The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). Ongoing monitoring is $15 per month and you can cancel at any time. Click here to sign up today!

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

 

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

Teens and Anonymous Social Media Accounts

We wrote a post back in 2014 titled, “Why Is My Teen Using a Pseudonym on Social Media?” It was true then, and it’s true now, that some internet users of all ages use anonymous accounts. Some have nefarious reasons (trolling, cyberbullying, illegal or subversive activity), and some are completely harmless and just want to speak their mind or lurk in peace.

anonymousYesterday, a visitor to our website left the comment below in response to the post.

“It’s actually largely inappropriate for teenagers to be using public social media *without* using pseudonyms. Few adults would wish to be held accountable and judged for their thoughts and actions while they were teenagers, but making public posts to the Internet under your real name in fact creates a permanent record.

So teens should be taught to always use pseudonyms as part of learning to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner.”

The commenter, while anonymous, appears to be affiliated with an organization that is dedicated to defending civil liberties online. We’re big fans to teens having civil liberties, including the freedom to post publicly on age-appropriate online forums.

In short, we disagree with the commenter. Here are some of the reasons:

We are doing a disservice to teens if we don’t stress the importance of having a positive online identity. College admissions officers (possible) and future employers (probable) could be checking a teen or young adult’s digital footprint to gain insight into character and qualifications, and they aren’t just looking for negatives. In fact, according to a recent survey, 38% of employers who check social media have found something that makes them more likely to hire a candidate.

According to the same survey, researchers found that it is increasingly a red flag if recruiters can’t find someone online. It is either a signal that the person has something to hide, or a sign that the person is digitally incompetent or unconnected. You don’t want your teen to come off as being either.

Anonymity breeds bad behavior. A study last year found that anonymous internet commenters were twice as likely to use “language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful.” Of course, most teens won’t do that, but when you believe you’re anonymous, you might give into the temptation to unload on someone or use inappropriate language.

There is a chance that he will be found out. If your teen is conducting himself online with the belief that nobody knows who he is, and he is found out, that opens up a whole new can of worms. There are hackers out there who are happy to do it just for kicks, or because you’ve posted something that they disagree with. It is called doxing, and it happens.

It’s called social media for a reason. Teens are so active online because that it increasingly how they connect and share with their friends and make new ones. It’s pretty difficult to meaningfully connect with anyone when you’re anonymous.

It is possible to teach teens to respect others and act appropriately in the real world. It’s also possible to do the same with their online activity, and teach them how to stay safe. Rather than hiding behind a pseudonym, let’s teach them to do just that. As parents, it’s our job.

 

 

If you are worried that your teen or tween is at risk, we can help. The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). Ongoing monitoring is $15 per month and you can cancel at any time. Click here to sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

 

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

Yik Yak Intros Messaging, Could Become a Hookup App

It’s not totally a stretch to say that Yik Yak might become a hookup app.

Yik Yak logoYik Yak was founded as an anonymous, location-based social network that was originally targeted at college students. The app quickly became popular at high schools, so much so that the company took some measures to block its use at some schools. The block didn’t totally work and its popularity at high schools continues.

Last month, Yik Yak took the first steps away from total anonymity, making “handles” an optional feature. Users can select a user name – which can be their real name – and can elect whether to use it or not for each post.

This week, Yik Yak is introducing what it is calling its most requested feature – chat. Starting today, any user who posts using a handle can send a message request to any other user who also uses a handle, in their local area. Users can accept or decline any chat request from any user. Yik Yak wants to increase the bonds between individual users, but only if both users are willing participants.

With handles and private chat, Yik Yak appears to be considering the idea that cyberbullying and other abusive behaviors might see an uptick. Apparently because of this, Yik Yak has also enhanced the user support features in its Safety Center.

Yik Yak messagingWhy do we say that it might morph into a hookup app? Check out the Yik Yak post at right. From what we’ve seen, a lot of posts on Yik Yak are made by lonely folks looking for company, and not all of them are G Rated. Until now, when users wanted to connect in real life, they typically traded Kik or Snapchat handles, which necessitated at least one of them posting it publicly. Awkward.

Now, if another lonely soul sees such a post and sends a private message, it could be off to the races for the two.

We don’t have anything against hookup apps, or hooking up in general for that matter, but we want to alert parents as to what could happen. Millions of teens have downloaded Yik Yak, and use it at least occasionally.

Now would be a great time to review which apps are on your teen’s phone, and talk about how she is using them.

 

 

DID YOU KNOW?: The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). You can cancel at any time. Sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

Illinois College Students Fire Back Against Yik Yak Ban

Short of unplugging their servers, it appears that banning Yik Yak on any given campus is more difficult that it might appear.

Yik Yak, the anonymous, location-based social network, has been home to many problems, including cyberbullying, teacher bashing, bomb and other threats, party crashing, and blatant talk of illegal activity. Users do have the option to remain fully anonymous – unless the police get involved – and they do in may cases.

Yik Yak ban Illinois College
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Eductaion

In February, students at Illinois College appealed to the school administration to block Yik Yak, principally because of a number of racially charged posts. The school President Barbara Farley agreed, and use of Yik Yak was recently banned on the school’s wireless network. The problem is that students were still able to access Yik Yak via their phones’ data plan, and students did just that, letting other users how they felt about the ban (pictured at right, from The Chronicle of Higher Education).

Blocking Yik Yak has been a hot topic of late. Amid a rash of bad behavior by high school users in 2014, Yik Yak voluntarily blocked its app at over 85% of the high schools in the country (or at least that was their claim at the time). We tested the block ourselves, and found schools where it was blocked, and schools where it was operational a mere few feet from the front door.

Blocking Yik Yak at a college is a futile exercise. Sure, school admins can block it from the schools wireless network as Illinois College did, but students are still free to use it. Yik Yak is not going to voluntarily block the app at colleges, since college students are its core focus. It might actually make the problem worse.

We aren’t fans of Yik Yak, but will be quick to admit that if bad actors are unable to use Yik Yak, there are plenty of other social networks and messaging apps that they can use. The best thing that parents can do is make sure that their own kids are using technology responsibly.

 

DID YOU KNOW? The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). You can cancel at any time. Sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

Yik Yak “Handles” Are Already Backfiring

A Hamilton College junior is in Florida for Spring Break, and got a big, negative surprise this week. It turns out that while she is away, someone is impersonating her on Yik Yak.

Yik Yak logoIf you’re not familiar with Yik Yak, it’s an until-recently anonymous, location based social network that is very popular in colleges and high schools. Last week, Yik Yak announced that it has introduced “handles” – optional user names that users can assign for themselves. Your handle can be your real name, or anything else, and even if you choose a handle you can continue to post anonymously.

While a network allowing some users to choose a user name may be better than it staying fully anonymous, this update appears to be backfiring already.

The Hamilton College student’s name is Adelaide Fuller, and while she’s off campus, another user has adopted the handle “AddyFuller”. AddyFuller has been posting sexual messages on Yik Yak and causing a great deal of embarrassment for Ms. Fuller, as other students assume it is her posting.

According to an article at Tech Insider, Yik Yak representatives say they will investigate reported cases of impersonation, but as of now that account and the posts are still up on Yik Yak, and visible to the students of Hamilton College.

Yik Yak has been troublesome almost from day one. Cyberbullying and teacher bashing routinely go unchecked. They are going to need to step up their reporting system, their response times and their efficacy in weeding out the bad actors.

There is a lot of work to do here. If you’re a parent, the best idea is to keep your teens off Yik Yak altogether.

 

 

NEW: For a limited time the ThirdParent audit is FREE (normally $49). You can cancel at any time. Sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Internet Trolls Explained by Science

According to new research found on the YouTube channel of AsapSCIENCE, internet trolls are real thing, and there are some scientific explanations for their behavior. Of course, if you’ve spent much time watching YouTube videos, or reading the comments section of internet articles, you know that trolls are a real thing.

The research shows that slightly more than 5% of internet users have some trolling tendencies. Individuals who self-identify or are found to be trolls have some specific character traits, including psychopathy, narcissism and sadism. In the words of the researchers, the most sinister element of trolling is that those with sadistic tendencies enjoy inflicting pain on others.

A final observation – internet trolls are good at trolling. Trolls tend to post more often and get more replies to their posts. The best course of action is to ignore the trolls entirely.

 

NEW: For a limited time the ThirdParent audit is FREE (normally $49). You can cancel at any time. Sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

Are Colleges Monitoring Public Social Media?

When it comes to school threats, the answer is mostly yes, but…

A big study came out recently and surprisingly, to us at least, it hasn’t gotten much attention. We say surprisingly because the topic of the study is campus safety, an issue that has been very much in the news of late.

The 2015 Campus Safety Survey was conducted by Margolis Healy in April-May of this year. In the survey they interviewed 513 campus officials – safety officers, members of school management and senior leaders – who answered questions anonymously. Overall, U.S. colleges appear to be well prepared for emergencies (86% have an emergency operations plan), but one area of particular interest to us is the survey’s look at how social media monitoring fits into school plans.

third-u-campus-safetyCampus threats, against individuals, groups or the school in general have been posted to social media with alarming frequency of late. From this month alone:

Mizzou student arrested for Yik Yak threat

 

Kean U alum due in court over tweets threatening black students

 

NEW YORK COLLEGE STUDENT ARRESTED FOLLOWING SOCIAL MEDIA SHOOTING THREAT

While some, or most, of the threats have been hoaxes, the safety of students and staff is critically important. How are colleges trained and staffed to find and deal with such threats?

Overall, the study shows that 63% of responding colleges report that they have at least one staff member monitoring public social media. It is more common for school leaders to monitor social media (76%) than for campus safety staff to do so (65%).

The key number above – 63% of schools monitor social media – appears to be overstated. 4% of those responding that they do monitor actually rely on students to report incidents, which isn’t actually monitoring at all.

Two thirds of the monitoring that is being done is conducted manually. Only 8% of schools are using monitoring software or contracting with a professional organization to do it (Let us know if you’d like to discuss a custom solution for your school).

Which social networks are the schools monitoring? The results could paint a better picture, in our opinion:

  • Facebook – 95%
  • Twitter – 76%
  • Yik Yak – 54%
  • Instagram – 49%
  • YouTube – 39%
  • Google+ – 23%
  • Flickr – 20%
  • Tumblr – 16%

What do those results tell us? Facebook is the most-used social network by adults, so it’s no surprise that it’s number one on the list. The fact that it is speaks volumes to the efficacy of the manual monitoring that is being done – it probably leaves a lot to be desired. Based on the threats posted recently, Yik Yak and Twitter are much bigger threats than Facebook. Actually, since one’s real identity is a cornerstone of Facebook (whereas Yik Yak is anonymous, and setting up a rogue Twitter account takes a minute or two), Facebook isn’t much of a risk at all.

In our experience, the networks where threats are likely to show up are, in order, Yik Yak, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Don’t bother writing that list down; it will change.

You might be able to take the temperature of your college community by following your school’s Facebook page or following a few student leaders on Twitter, but to effectively monitor for threats, a more involved effort is required. If you work at a college and would like to discuss a solution for your school, please let us know.

 

 

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

More Problems with the After School App

after-school-appWe wrote last week about the anonymous After School app that caters to high school students. We have a number of issues with the app, not the least of which is that anonymous communications tend to be very popular with cyberbullies.

In the article last week we focused on, among other things, the fact that I was able to sign up to the page of a local high school despite the fact that the app is supposed to be for students only.

In any anonymous community, one might assume there is a risk that other members of the community aren’t who they claim to be. In the worst-case scenario, some users might be cyberbullies or worse, predators looking to do real harm. That risk has been downplayed by the reviews of the After School that we’ve seen. For example, in their review of the app, Common Sense media writes:

“The age controls are tight, too, which not only means that non-teen predators will have difficulty getting in, but it also means parents can’t monitor teens’ postings themselves.”

That seems to be consensus – that it is nearly impossible for non high school students to join a school network. That was not the case in our experience. After I selected the local high school from a list, the app asked to connect with Facebook to verify student status. I didn’t lie about my status, just clicked “OK” and was quickly connected.after-school-facebook

That brings up a second issue with the app. While After School did make the following claim, “This does not let the app post to Facebook”, it said nothing else about what else it might do with my Facebook information. I returned to the app the following day and noticed that After School has posted for me, and included my first name and my Facebook profile photo. I didn’t sign up for that, and didn’t know it was a possibility.

Our third issue with the app is a more minor one. Users who want to access the “mature” content on the app are supposed to scan their student ID card to verify that they are an upperclassman. I have a son who is 17-year old high school student at a large school. I asked him to try it and the scan was not compatible with the code on his student I.D. Also, if he was able to scan it, there is no way to verify that it was his I.D. he was scanning.

Since that app’s introduction last year, they have made some positive changes. Some of them are described well in an article this week at ChicagoNow.

We have a number of questions:

  • In theory, how is the Facebook link supposed to confirm high school student status?
  • Why didn’t it work in my case?
  • Shouldn’t After School clearly disclose if they are going to use my Facebook info and post for me?

For now, we strongly caution parents to keep their teens off After School. We’d like to see some answers.

 

 

 

NEW: For a limited time the ThirdParent audit is FREE (normally $49). You can cancel at any time. Sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.

 

After School App | Anonymous and Problematic

after-school-appWe first took a look at the anonymous After School app last year. At the time, we didn’t write a review for two reasons, the first being that it didn’t seem to be taking off nationally. The second, less good reason was that we couldn’t log into the app.

The app itself claims to be only for high school students, and if I remember correctly, you needed a .edu email address to log in, which I obviously don’t have. I deleted the app and promised myself that I’d come back to it if there was an indication that it was taking off.

This morning there’s a new buzz around the app thanks to an excellent Washington Post article titled Millions of teens are using a new app to post anonymous thoughts, and most parents have no idea. We decided to take another look.

If you’re a parent, the first paragraph is all you need to know about whether the After School app should be on your teen’s phone:

“Millions of teenagers in high schools nationwide are using a smartphone app to anonymously share their deepest anxieties, secret crushes, vulgar assessments of their classmates and even violent threats, all without adults being able to look in.”

after-schoolWe’ll have a full review in the upcoming weeks but thought we’d focus on the last part of the quoted paragraph above – “without adults being able to look in”.

After re-downloading the app, I got a message saying that is it only for students and offered a list of local schools. I chose the local high school and was directed to connect to my Facebook account to confirm that I am in fact a student. I clicked the button to connect to Facebook and after a few moments was a proud member of the Hunterdon Central Regional High School After School community. I’m not a high school student and there is no information in Facebook or elsewhere that indicates I am one. This looks like faux verification to us.

That’s kind of a big deal. The teens interacting on the app assume that they’re talking to their peers. As it turns out, they could be talking to anyone – including a predator. It’s not safe.

What has improved from the earlier iteration of the app is that they do a better job gating the adult content. The default setting is that content that is sexual or drug related is blocked from view. You need to scan the barcode (or something) on your school ID tp unlock the adult content. We’re not sure how this works – more on that later.

after-school-adult-content

As we said, you can look for our full review in the coming weeks, but if your teen is already using After School, you might want to point out that everyone on there may not be who they are pretending to be.

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more news and information on keeping your teens safe online. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter below.