Back To School and Social Media Threats

It’s the back-to-school time of year again. Already. The high school near our office started classes yesterday. The schools in the town I live in start on Tuesday. The roads are busier and there is generally more activity out and about. There’s already more activity of another type as well.

I have a number of daily Google Alerts set up for the types of things that we cover and research. One of those alerts is “high school social media”. Below are the top 4 results for this morning – for one day’s news cycle.

school social media threats

  • Northwestern [High School] student arrested after Snapchat threat
  • Weapon found at high school after social media posts
  • Olathe teen faces charges over social media post
  • Vermillion student in police custody after alleged social media threats

That particular alert was very quiet over the summer, but as you can see, that has changed.

Did these students spend the summer dreaming up ways they could use social media to wreak havoc at their schools when classes started up again? Probably not, but they probably did spend their summer with their faces buried in their phones. Posting something online comes as naturally as opening your mouth and saying something.

Here’s a reminder for parents: Now is a great time to have a talk with your teen about using his electronics and social media responsibly.

We believe that many or most of these types of threats are not real. What’s really going on? Some teens really struggle to understand that a joke posted on social media might not be seen as such by others. Many teens think that because they’re on an anonymous platform, or one where their posts “disappear”, their actions won’t be traced back to them.

The truth is, jokes that might be serious are being taken very seriously. Schools, the police, social networks and cell phone carriers are quick to cooperate when there’s a risk at school. School officials and cautious kids are on high alert for anything that involves guns or may involve other types of violence at schools.

Keep your teens on the right side of the line. Have the talk with them, and keep on having it.



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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.


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.

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Yik Yak Blocks Its App at High Schools By Geo Fencing | Or Do They?

yik-yak-logoYik Yak, the anonymous app that uses a phone’s GPS system to act as any local school’s anonymous message board, started causing problems at high schools soon after it launched in late 2013. In our review in February of this year, we wrote:

“Another feature of the app adds to the virality of extremely outlandish or hurtful posts – users can upvote (or downvote) posts, and posts can be sorted based on popularity, all of which can serve to light a fire under the worst type of content and commentary.

Just this week, Yik Yak has been blamed for a school shooting threat in Alabama and an outbreak of cyberbullying at a Kansas School. In neither case have any users involved been identified.”

In the case of Yik Yak, the founders were not tone deaf to the publicity of problems being caused by the app, and in March one of the founders granted an interview to TechCruch, addressing the issue.

“To implement [high school]…bans nationwide, the team approached third-party data provider Maponics in order to license GPS data for a total of 100,599 public schools across the U.S. as well as 28,111 private schools.

“They have 85 percent of the GPS coordinates for American high schools and middle schools,” says [Yik Yak founder] Buffington. “The message [to students where the app is blocked] is something along the lines of, ‘it looks like you’re trying to use Yik Yak on a middle school or high school grounds. Yik Yak is intended for people college-aged and above. The app is disabled in this area.’”

This sounds like a great response, but that was six months ago and we are still seeing weekly occurrences of Yik Yak causing problems in high schools. To wit:

Yik Yak bullying leads districts to ban app – Sept. 29, 2014

Yik Yak app leads to trouble for high schoolers – Sept. 25, 2014

Yik Yak app leads to arrests, raises concerns of cyberbullying – Sept. 24, 2014

yik-yak-drugs-homophobicBased on those three headlines from the last week, it’s hard for us to believe that Yik Yak has actually geo fenced 85% of U. S. high schools and blocked that app for those students. As a matter of fact, our offices are about a mile from the local high school, and Yik Yak is positively thriving, complete with content that would make most parents blush.

Maybe Yik Yak will drop us a line on this.

If you’re the parent of a teen, the chances seem pretty good to us that there is an active Yik Yak community at your kids’ school. If you see the Yik Yak app on your teen’s phone, take a look. If you don’t want to pry into your teen’s phone, feel free to contact school officials and ask them if they’ve taken steps to block the app. According to Yik Yak, they can do so if it hasn’t been done already – school officials can email to have it done manually.

We hope that Yik Yak doesn’t believe that they’ve solved the problem yet. They haven’t.



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When Teens, Twitter and Internet Fame Don’t Mix

This was presented as a feel-good story, but isn’t one. A major newspaper (The Toronto Star) ran with a story that happened to out a high school student’s public Twitter account. It might well be used as a valuable lesson for students and parents.

The story: a high school freshman boy in California enlisted the help of a star Major League baseball player to ask a girl to the prom. On a whim, the star agreed to do it. Awash in limelight, the girl said yes. Internet fame has ensued. That’s the good news, at least from the point of view of the students involved..


Bingo. She’s a big deal on the internet, at least for this week. She now has 2,425 followers on Twitter.

The bad news: The story linked to the girl’s Twitter account, which was public, and still is as of this writing. We’re not going to link to the story or the account. She is a very active Titter user, and her content is available for anyone to see. The problem? Her account has frequent profanity, pictures of drug and alcohol use and homophobic and racial slurs.


This account highlights a number of points we frequently make when talking to parents:

  • Some teens want to be internet-famous, or at least internet-popular, and will go to great lengths to get there
  • They think what they do online is no big deal. It’s just the internet
  • Other people checking out her account, as I did, would likely form a very negative opinion

A lot of her inappropriate tweets were retweeted multiple times, which means there is a permanent record. Drug use and underage alcohol consumption are both illegal, and inappropriate comments are just that. If a college admissions officer or future employer chose to take a look at this Twitter profile, the chances of them viewing this individual in a positive light are close to zero.

Talk to your teens about keeping online activity safe and appropriate, and keeping private things private.


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Is Teen Sexting Now Part of Normal Courtship?

It might be, but that doesn’t let parents off the hook.

An expansive new study was published by La Trobe University in Australia this week, titled National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health, and it is causing a number of media commentators and industry experts to dust off their opinion about whether teenage sex and sexting are bad, and just how bad, or not bad at all.

The study, led by author Anne Mitchell, polled 2,136 boys and girls in grades 10 through 12, and asked them about everything from HIV transmission to use of technology to drug and alcohol use. The full results of the survey can be found by following the link above.

The high level conclusions from the survey, specifically with respect to teen sexuality and sexting, are as follows:

  • 69% of students had experienced some sort of sexual activity
  • A majority of respondents reported using some form of contraception
  • 14% of sexually active respondents report that their last partner was under 16
  • 17% of students were drunk or high last time they had sex
  • 87% of respondents use social media or apps at least once a day
  • Over half of respondents reported having received sexually explicit messages
  • Over a quarter of respondents reported having sent sexually explicit photos of themselves
  • 9% of respondents had sent a sexually explicit picture or video of someone else

One conclusion from the survey authors:

“The use of social media is almost universal and clearly plays a large role in the negotiation and development of sexual relationships. This includes the now common sending of explicit messages and images, most of which appear to occur within relationships.”

There is a natural desire by journalists and experts to fit controversial topics into neat categories for easier dissemination and discussion. Case and point the articles this week “‘Sexting’ is new courtship’, parents are told” and “Study finds no reason to panic about teens, sex and technology”, both of which used the study results as a centerpiece for discussion.

Is this new normal with respect to sexting okay? Perhaps some level of sexual activity is inevitable. The fact that most kids are using contraception is encouraging. Maybe sexting is not a problem for consenting partners who are older teens; after all, it is undeniable that teens have chosen technology as their go-to medium of communication, and teen pregnancy and abortion rates in this country are at an all time low.

On the other hand, sex with minors under 16, sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or transmitting sexually explicit images of someone else – all not okay.

We shouldn’t stop parenting just because most worst-case scenarios are not playing out in our homes. To wit:

  • Just because lots of people are doing something, doesn’t make it okay
  • Just because something hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t
  • “Not in my house” or “not by my kids” might be wrong
  • If your teen’s sexually explicit photos get posted to the internet, bad things will happen

The proliferation of technology is supposed to have made things better, and in some cases it has, but accepting risky behavior as normal because (a) it’s probably going to happen anyway, and (b) we’ve gotten better at managing the consequences, is silly. Talk to your teens about how they’re using technology, and make sure they understand the risks. Let’s not stop parenting.


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Minors Sexting and Child Pornography Charges – What is Justice?

Are child pornography charges ever appropriate in teen sexting cases? We asked Reddit, and the responses might surprise you.

redditWe wrote earlier this month about how a New Jersey teen sexting case looks like it will end up in criminal charges for young two individuals.

In the case, a West Orange boy is accused of sending nude photos of his ex-girlfriend to another girl, who then allegedly shared the pictures with friends and may have posted them online. Both of the teens, 16-years-old, have been charged with distributing child pornography and endangering the welfare of a child. The victim is 17 years old.

The case raises a number of questions, and child porn charges for teens over pictures that were acquired legitimately seem very steep. We posted a question and link to the story on the popular social networking site Reddit, to see what kind of justice the average American would like to see applied in cases such as these. To get an “average” opinion, we posted our question in the r/NewJersey subreddit, not a parenting forum. As background, since the average Reddit user is around 30 years old, many of the folks who replied probably aren’t even parents.

On the question of whether child porn charges are appropriate, some of the NO answers:

It’s a bit much. Sending a nude pic of one of their peers is not the same as child pornography. They should be punished but let’s not be ridiculous.


It’s ridiculous that the penalty for teen sexting is worse than the actual consequence of teen sexting.


They should not be charged the same as a full grown adult distributing images of child sex abuse. they should receive something APPROPRIATE for distributing images of a minor that where voluntarily taken and sent.


I know when I was 16 I wasn’t thinking correctly with a lot of decisions I was making. They should be charged with something but child porn? That’s life ruining, in prison you’re going to get raped and beat the f*** up.

and finally

They really want to institutionalize these kids at an early age. Whether it’s in public schools, juvy, or prison, they want these kids in the system and mindlessly obeying authority from as early an age as possible.

It’s f***ing disgusting. These are kids man. Can you remember what you were like at 16? I was a dumb-ass, immature little punk as were most kids.

On the YES, it’s appropriate side of the ledger, here’s the most popular answer:

As the images were sent without the consent of the girl — who was under 18 — then yes, they made the right call. F*** this “dumb teen” bulls**t. At 16 you fully understand that individuals have rights and privacy. This isn’t one of those times where a teenager gets in trouble for sending THEIR pictures; this is someone “leaking” picture that they had no authority to share.

and also

Agreed, I understand the penalty is harsh, but this sending pictures of your ex to get back at them has got to stop. Those pictures never go away once they are posted, these kids need to understand that.

On whether the victim, if she took the original photos or agreed to have them taken, bears any responsibility:

Why then did the original sender of her own nude photos not get arrested for child pornography? She would be just as guilty


I mean if they’re going to charge them, they might as well charge the girl who took the picture of herself. This really isn’t in the spirit of the law.

the third like this

If the subject of the photos took the photos and sent them in the first place, she should be charged as well.

Opinions are mixed, but most respondents are willing to assign some level of blame to the teens in this case, and some form of punishment for the accused. We’re not sure whether teen sexual activity has increased, but the ease with which provocative photos can be shared has skyrocketed. A constant dialog between teens and parents is needed to minimize the chances of your family finding itself in a similar situation.


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