Learning privacy the hard way

Adults should step in monitor teens’ use of apps like Snapchat and YikYak.
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Adults should step in monitor teens’ use of apps like Snapchat and Yik Yak.

High school students aren’t always known for their good judgment or their ability to extrapolate into the future. That’s why a couple of popular social networking apps, irresistible to some teens, have proven particularly disruptive. First, there’s Snapchat, the mobile service that allows users to send each other photos, videos, and messages that ostensibly disappear after a set period of time. Last week, the company agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, based on charges that Snapchat misled customers about how private and short-lived those messages really are.

The principle of buyer beware does apply here, but these apps raise an overarching concern about the way teens use mobile apps — and the vigilance of the adults in their lives. A savvy digital user, by now, should know that very little online is likely to be truly private. But it’s doubtful that many 15-year-old Snapchat users are keeping up with federal regulatory actions or thinking ahead about how long that incriminating selfie might linger online.

That’s why adults need to step in, as they’ve been doing in the case of a new mobile messaging app called Yik Yak. The app, which bills itself as a virtual bulletin board intended for college campuses, allows people to leave anonymous, 200-character messages within a 1.5-mile radius. Quickly and predictably, it has caught on with younger students — and become a tool for teenage cruelty.


Many middle and high schools have already banned Yik Yak. To its credit, the company has agreed, upon request, to use GPS technology to block the app from working on secondary school campuses. Still, new cases, in new regions, continue to crop up, and teens can do plenty of damage outside school grounds. If there’s one good thing about Yik Yak, it’s the fact that its flurries of hurtful messages tend to erupt so quickly, and become so all-consuming for the students involved, that parents and schools officials quickly find out. That schools have taken steps to halt its use — and, more importantly, to get students to talk about it — is an encouraging sign. When it comes to cyberbullying, adults’ awareness is at the root of any solution.