I have always been a progressive educator when it comes to allowing open access to responsible internet resources that engage students. Since 1997, when the internet was a brand new tool for schools, our school pioneered many programs on mission to inspire youth. While I still believe in the multiple blessings of the online universe, its curse is now feeding on our children and gaining strength.
The darkness of some social media sites and apps reflects typical and atypical behaviors. What is pressing about the current problem is the new anonymity and blatant exploitation of young minds by corporate and venture capital groups out to make a buck at our children’s expense.
I am not talking about relatively responsible sites like Facebook and Twitter. I am talking about sites that make it impossible to trace bad behavior online, sites that use that angle as their primary purpose for existence. I am talking about the people making money from these sites while refusing to accept responsibility for the site’s psychological design.
To use Yik Yak as an example, let’s assume that the founders of Yik Yak are great young people with a vision. Let’s also assume that the founders intended no ill will, yet the site’s architecture and advertising tag lines focused on geography and anonymity. Why those features together in a gossip app?
In June of 2014, The Wall Street Journal highlighted the fact that $10 million dollars of venture capital had been raised for the app, noting also the controversy about Yik Yak’s potential harm for bullying. http://blogs.wsj.com/venturecapital/2014/06/30/yik-yak-raises-10-million-to-move-beyond-being-a-gossip-app/
Previously, before this large outflow of money toward the venture, many articles had highlighted Yik Yak’s misuse. On March 11, 2014, Diana Graber, a blogger for the Huffington Post, published a blog about Yik Yak’s dangers. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-graber/3-things-kids-need-yik-yak_b_4941478.html. Yik Yak took some action and she subsequently posted an update on March 26, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-graber/yik-yak-app-makers-do-the_b_5029679.html. All of this precedes the $10 million dollar investment in the company.
These ‘geo fence’ limitations and other restrictions may or may not be effective over time, but in April 2014, shortly after these safeguards went into place, another article was published by NYMag.com. The article contains offensive language but highlights the danger of the app and details the trauma caused by teenagers at a school using the social media app. http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/04/gossip-app-brought-my-high-school-to-a-halt.html. On October 7, 2014, USA Today published this article by Daniel P. Finney regarding the explosive potential for misuse of the app. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/10/06/yik-yak-app-campus-concerns/16802255/
Profit is not a bad thing; venture capital is not a bad thing; social media is not a bad thing, but what is wrong with this picture? The truth is that all of the articles above contain useful information for parents and educators about what to do to safeguard children. Even those of us struggling to do ‘all of the above’ and teach children about responsible digital citizenship, are not able to keep up with the shifting landscape.
Even the most liberal among us recognize that our children cannot fully grasp the responsibilities associated with tremendous freedom. Our options as parents and educators seem to be as follows:
- Sacrifice the potential benefits of online resources due to its potential threats. Essentially, give up and ban all independent access until a certain age. Or
- Continue to educate kids regarding the safe use of the information highway even though many of our young people cannot reach the pedals, or even see over the steering wheel, but are nonetheless in the driver’s seat. And, or
- Educate ourselves on ways to keep offenders off the roads well traveled by our kids. Employ training wheels and driver’s permits in the form of constant supervision, pressure on developers to mandate safeguards, and pressure on adults that shamelessly fund exploitative apps.
I plan on adopting options two and three, but I’m not going to lie and say it is going to be easy. Temporary use of option one may be required. Together we must all keep this conversation going. Who is in the best position to act? Investors? Educators? Parents? Legislators? All of us must do something other than stick our head in the sand and watch our kids get hurt playing with hazards we know little about. These sites are modern day plagues, driven by all the wrong motives.
As a believer that good always triumphs over evil, even I recognize that it is irresponsible to take a stroll in a beautiful mine field. The digital universe, and its tools, have much to offer, but the problem here is that our children are on the front line, going in before we get there. We cannot teach them the tricks, the ins and outs of these apps with our wise old brains. Instead, we are calling out to them from a place of irrelevance, a non-user too old to ‘get’ what happens in their world.
Today, as a parent, as an educator, and as a citizen, I promise to do what I can to promote independence in young people without exposing them to too much too soon. As a lawyer, even I cannot find good resources regarding the potential responsibilities of those who make these apps but clearly disclaim liability for their misuse. It seems to me that any human online deserves some freedom to be anonymous in certain situations, but is there a reason not to be traceable? To have your digital tracks literally disappear? So that even law enforcement cannot protect someone’s safety? What are the good reasons for those freedoms?
I ask these questions because I really don’t know the answers and I’m seeing young people get hurt every day. I want to be a part of the solution, anyone else up for a stroll in a minefield?