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Yik Yak chat app stirring up trouble in high schools

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yik Yak creates an anonymous chat room of users connected by location
  • Meant for colleges students, high schoolers have caught on, caused trouble
  • Chicago schools report cyberbullying, and a California school reports a bomb scare
  • The app is useful for more mature college students, app's co-founder says

(CNN) -- From Chicago, to Georgia, to Southern California, a new social media application is causing problems on middle school and high school campuses across the United States.

It's called Yik Yak, a location-based app that creates an anonymous social chat room where up to 500 nearby users connect through GPS tracking on their phones. Less than 4 months old, Yik Yak has "a couple hundred thousand users, mainly in Southeast/East coast campuses," its co-founder Brooks Buffington said.

Users are limited to 200 characters, and no pictures are allowed. If a post is "down voted" enough times by other users on the forum, the comment disappears. Tech experts are comparing the new Atlanta-based app to a cross between SnapChat and Twitter.

"The app was made for college-age users or above, for college campuses and to act as a virtual bulletin board, so it acts as local Twitter for their campus," Buffington told CNN.

Although the app is meant for users age 17 and older, younger users can still sign up, and that's where the issues have sprouted.

School administrators in Chicago said teens in some of their schools have used the free app for cyberbullying. Others have made anonymous bomb threats that have led to school lockdowns.

"Students were actually coming downstairs to talk to administration, and they were mentioning remarks posted and student names that were obvious, so of course that is going to impact you," Melvin Soto, assistant vice principal at Whitney Young High School, told CNN affiliate WLS.

Some students have compared it to a virtual bathroom wall where users post vitriol and hate.

"They ripped on someone for getting raped, and that's just so wrong. They said a whole lot of bad things about this girl," Whitney Young student Rachel Brown told WLS.

In southern California, a San Clemente High School resource officer told CNN a threatening Yik Yak post caused a bomb scare on campus.

"The school was placed on lockdown, we conducted a sweep utilizing our bomb squad and bomb-sniffing dogs and nothing suspicious was located on or near the campus," Orange County Sheriff's spokesman Jeff Hallock told CNN.

He added that the app is so new that some students hadn't even heard about it yet.

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In Georgia, the principal of Webb Bridge Middle School in Fulton County wrote a cautionary letter to parents warning them about the "inflammatory [Yik Yak] app," encouraging them to talk to their children about the "dangers of social media." The school district has blocked the app from its network, but Principal Susan Opferman writes, students have found ways around that too.

"If used inappropriately, Yik Yak posts can be especially vicious and hurtful, since there is no way to trace their source, and can be disseminated widely," Opferman said in the letter.

These types of incidents have caused the app's developers to disable it in some areas. Buffington told CNN he doesn't want high school students using the app.

"One of the things we were planning to do is to essentially geo-sense every high school and middle school in America, so if they try to open the app in their school, it will say something like 'no, no no, looks like you are trying to open the app on a high school or middle school and this is only for college kids,' and it will disable it and the app won't work," Buffington told CNN.

"That will completely eliminate the problem we have been seeing, so we geo-sensed the entire city of Chicago until we get this fix up. We are working on getting third-party help to get the fix in place as soon as possible."

But cyberbullying expert Justin W. Patchin says that's just a short-term solution. He says teens will figure out a way around it.

"It is pretty impossible to limit it to the ages that the founders have intended," said Patchin, who is the co-director at the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "When I signed up for the app, it said that you have to be 17 or above to sign in, and of course, there wasn't any way of them checking my age so anybody could sign up."

The app's developers defended their technology, saying it is used for good.

"With anonymity comes a lot of responsibility, and college kids have the maturity that it takes to handle those responsibilities," Buffington said. "One of my favorite use case stories is a freshman missed his flight for Christmas break, and he came back to campus and he posted on Yik Yak that the freshman dorms were closed, and so an upperclassman let him crash on his couch," Buffington said.

"Anonymity can be a really beautiful thing, and one of the reasons we made it anonymous is it gives people a blank slate to work from, so you're not judged on your race or sexuality or gender. On Yik Yak you are purely judged on content you create." Buffington said.

He added, "The longer that we are around on college campuses, the better it gets."

As more applications pop up and the environments of social networking sites change, Patchin says the emphasis should be on teaching younger generations about respect in online communities.

"It is more important to talk to the students about how to treat each other respectfully. Whether it is happening in an application like this or Facebook or on e-mail, the emphasis for us has always been on those behaviors because it is easier to teach that than to restrict that to particular technology."

CNN's Devon Sayers contributed to this report.

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