Published on March 4, 2014 online
Our print publication was one week into our two-week rotation when this event exploded onto the scene. I dropped what I was doing, interviewed 18 students, administrators, parents and psychologists in one weekend and wrote the story in time for our publishing deadline.
It started as a joke between friends.
On Tuesday, Feb. 11, sophomore Joseph Harris* and ten of his friends downloaded Yik Yak, an app that allowed the boys to post anonymously to other users in a five-mile radius.
They were unaware of the growing audience of students who were also downloading the app. Two days later, over 500 estimated students at East, Rockhurst and Pembroke Hill were using it.
The posts on Yik Yak ranged from crude to cruel. They attacked the sexuality, clothing, weight, social standing, race and socioeconomic status of students in all grades, and at rapid speed.
On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 13 -- the peak of the app’s usage -- the Yik Yak feed was being updated at a rate of three posts a minute.
“We never took it as something that would get so horrible,” Harris said. “No one was safe from it. Just whoever popped into their mind, that’s who people typed about.”
The overnight obsession with Yik Yak ended as quickly as it started. By Saturday, warnings from the administration and a counteracting stream of compliments from the anonymous Twitter account @SMEPositweets and @SMELove had helped to drop the rate to five Yik Yak posts a day.
Yet for 48 hours, Yik Yak had dominated the conversations of East students, teachers and administrators. It made an impact to both students and faculty, because it illustrated what the future of cyberbullying could look like.
According to teen therapist Kathy Calvert, this form of bullying doesn’t play by the rules. It’s impossible to trace, impossible to tell who is saying what. And although teen therapists such as Calvert agree that it wreaks havoc on the self-image and social stability of teenagers, anonymous social media remains enticing to bullies.
“Lots of these posts were aimed at girls like [me] who people thought could take it, but a lot of them couldn’t,” sophomore Lauren Blackburn said. “They called me chunky [on Yik Yak], and that’s a part of myself that I’ve never been completely comfortable with. It makes you fear what other people think of you. You don’t just forget that.”
Calvert attributes the attraction of -- and obsession with -- Yik Yak to the need to fit in. The app’s day of fame was fueled by a psychological mindset called “groupthink.”
When teenagers fall into groupthink, they are empowered by the behavior of their peers. The urge to be recognized -- even anonymously through likes -- becomes a true obsession, and Calvert said that East students were driven by the urge to be recognized as part of the Yik Yak movement.
“You can see whole groups of people just feed off of each other,” Calvert said. “They’re not thinking about how those words, those insults could hurt someone. They’re thinking about how many likes they can get [on Yik Yak], how much this will help them be like everyone else.”
This creates a pack mentality. Students focus on pleasing and imitating others. At the same time, Calvert says, they will attempt to outdo one another, posting increasingly cruel insults.
“I would just make fun of one particular person, because they were going after me,” sophomore Brady Sanders* said. “One post I did [about him] got 66 likes. He would just get embarrassed and he would post more and more stuff. It was hard to stop because we were all doing it.”
Despite the brevity of Yik Yak’s fame at East, sociology teacher Vicki Arndt-Helgeson and Calvert both believe that the damage done during those two days could be more detrimental than most of the bullies understand. Although it had negative consequences on Yik Yak, groupthink would later work in reverse when anonymous Twitter accounts fought back with compliments.
Cyberbullying is a unique form of bullying according to Arndt-Helgesen because it is permanent. Victims who kept screenshots of posts about themselves could revisit the insult, prolonging their embarrassment. This was a major concern of senior Jordan Hall, who spoke out against Yik Yak to the freshman choir and was the first student to ask Positweets to take action.
“People would send each other screenshots of it. They would try to laugh it off,” Hall said. “But it wasn’t funny, and everyone knew it. When you’re bullied, you sit and you just replay it over and over again, and there’s no escape from that.”
To add to that embarrassment, cyberbullying occurs in a public forum. With over 500 students in the five-mile radius using the app at its peak, victims were surrounded by hundreds of anonymous bystanders. Calvert believes this could threaten the relationships between students.
“You don’t know who attacked you, but you also don’t know who just stood by and saw all of the nasty things that were said about you,” Calvert said. “It makes you wonder how people truly perceive you, how they define you.”
Before Yik Yak, principal John McKinney knew exactly how to enforce the East bullying policy. A first offense resulted in a stern discussion. Following offenses resulted in escalating punishments, ranging from detentions to in-school or out-of-school suspensions. Punishing behavior on Yik Yak was different.
After having a steady stream of students request confidential meetings to discuss Yik Yak on Thursday, McKinney downloaded the app, aiming to find a way to stem the tide. He watched as the feed refreshed itself, stuffed with insults and attacks on students.
After hours of watching, McKinney could only make guesses. He had no way to catch perpetrators.
The anonymity kept McKinney’s involvement to a minimum. Hosting a faculty meeting to warn against Yik Yak and making an all-school announcement at the end of school on Friday was all that McKinney could do.
“I could watch and monitor what was happening, but there was very little that the administration could do,” McKinney said. “I had students coming in and telling me that they weren’t involved, but there was no way for us to find out who was actually involved. We had to leave it to the students to handle.”
The shift against Yik Yak also began on anonymous social media. Groupthink worked in reverse when the anonymous Twitter account @SMEPositweets began to tweet positive compliments on Thursday night.
The change from bullying was started by senior Ezequiel Cole* and junior Alex Bryant*, who run the account. The account’s purpose since it began three years ago was to tweet “mildly nice things” about East students and faculty, but it had been inactive for 83 days before Yik Yak hit East.
On Thursday night, the account sent out a tweet:
Yik Yak? More like Yick YUCK! DM us with some HAPPY things you would like us to tweet out! #downwithbullies
Within the next four hours, the account received more than 50 direct messages that included positive messages about students.
“I just immediately got like 30 messages, some from the same people,” Cole said. “I was just tweeting so much. I wish we could spread it out but sometimes it’s nice to do it all at once.”
For junior Maria Dunn, the positive change was encouraging to see. She had downloaded Yik Yak during lunch on Thursday, hoping that posting compliments would slow the rapid flow of insults and attacks. But after 15 minutes, she was feeling overwhelmed.
“There was just such a steady stream of negative stuff that it just overpowered anything we tried to say,” Dunn said. “I deleted it when I realized that I couldn’t make a dent in it.”
Dunn’s approach didn’t work, but it wasn’t because East was unwilling to change -- Calvert believes it was because she lacked a following. This is what gave Positweets the ability to overpower Yik Yak. Each tweet was receiving anywhere from five to 50 favorites.
For students like Harris, who was originally a bully on Yik Yak, Positweets made being nice popular.
The same night that Positweets began to tweet compliments, the anonymous Twitter account @SMELove was created by James Murphy*. @SMELove was made to work alongside Positweets by tweeting compliments about students, continuing to feed the popularity of kindness.
“I thought we needed a little bit of of redemption after all the Yik Yak drama,” Murphy said in a direct message. “We unified over hatred. These people getting their feelings hurt didn't deserve it, and when you can't confront the issue it's even harder.”
Once the majority opinion turned against Yik Yak, Calvert believes that groupthink kicked in again, pressuring students to delete the app and discourage its usage.
In the end, the phenomenon lasted a total of two days. Now, Yik Yak is hardly used by East students, with less than 10 posts a day. However, @SMEPositweets and @SMELove continue to update their accounts on a daily basis.
McKinney has applauded the student body on its quick reaction to the bullying on Yik Yak, attributing the social change to the school’s positive atmosphere. Calvert, however, sees this type of drama as a typical pattern in the behavior of teens, which was heightened by the anonymity.
“It doesn’t reflect anything positive or negative about East,” Calvert said. “It shows that these are teenagers, they are human, they are going to react to their surroundings and imitate whatever everyone else is.”
*names have been changed to protect identity