Yik Yak, Young People – and You!

Internationally, a range of new apps and youth cyberbullying incidents have sparked discussions and developments around young people's online safety, technology and legal reform. ICS researcher Dr Teresa Swirski explores these conversations and opportunities for involving young people in social change – such as the 'Digital Jigsaw' a national crowdsourcing campaign about cyberbullying, youth and the law.

There's an app for that

We are all aware by now that there is an app for pretty much everything. If you've ever wanted to know or do something – a common response is "There's an app for that!" Recently, there has emerged a new stream of 'anonymity apps', which allow users to communicate with a veneer of anonymity. For example, Yik Yak is a social app which markets itself as "the anonymous social wall for anything and everything". The novelty of this app is its guise of anonymity, as well as the geographical boundaries placed upon the live feed of comments.

Yik Yak has made headlines in the United States, such as in the Huffington Post, highlighting how the app has been used for youth cyberbullying – plus how the co-founders have sought to address this via changing the apps' age rating and blocking the app being used around high schools (with 'geo-fences'). As shown in this particular case, app developers took steps towards social responsibility which were helpful in responding to community concerns. However, this does not obviously stop negative behaviours occurring outside of schools borders and hours – or young people under 17 accessing the app.

Other new apps – such as Stop!t in the United States – are gaining prominence claiming to help young people access immediate help when cyberbullying occurs. Stop!t is described as "an affordable, anti-bullying security solution". Its promoted features include:

  • Safely and confidentially report cyberbullying incidents to school administrators and trusted adults.
  • Become an upstander rather than a bystander by reporting cyberbullying attacks against friends or schoolmates.
  • Reach out for emotional and psychological support.
  • Document electronic transmissions for future investigation.
  • Preloaded schools database includes public and private K-12 as well as Colleges and Universities.

While admirable for their intent, many apps are problematic for a number of reasons. They are often developed without drawing on an evidence base, and few have had any rigorous evaluation. But more problematic is the suggestion that advancing young people's safety and wellbeing can rely simply upon technological responses. A multidimensional approach is required to understand how technological and legal innovation, young people's practices and social change intermingle and shape one another.

Unfolding legal reform

A common remark about the interrelationship between technology and the law is how quickly new products and associated practices emerge – but how slow legal frameworks often are in keeping up. Over the past couple of years, a number of governments around the world have been grappling with the complexity of cyberbullying and the law. New Zealand has introduced the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, while in Canada the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act was brought in. The Minister of Justice And Attorney General of Canada, Peter MacKay, describes how:

Our Government believes in standing up for Canadians—because it is a basic right for children to feel protected—be it riding a bike in the neighbourhood or surfing the net. Bullying and cyberbullying are complex social problems that require action on a number of levels, from addressing gaps in the Criminal Code to prevention and education programs.

Earlier this year in the UK, shadow minister for culture, media and sport Helen Goodman called for "a clear legal framework" to tackle the problem of cyberbullying and the suicides of vulnerable young people (theguardian.com (opens in a new window)).

In Australia, submissions to the Public Consultation on Enhancing Online Safety for Children were  recently released online. Paul Fletcher MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications stated:

.. we have received a range of inputs, including from industry players, child safety advocates, school organisations, youth organisations, those with specialist legal and policy expertise and other stakeholders including Australians concerned about cyberbullying

Indeed many aspects of the criminal code currently cover cyberbullying but there are strong arguments that other approaches to addressing serious incidents are more suitable – particularly when they involve young people and children under the age of 18. While legal innovations on their own may be contentious to agree upon – what should be commonly valued is that how we respond to cyberbullying, young people and the law requires a multi-faceted response. Simplistic arguments over who is in control – or the degrees of control – need to be replaced by more nuanced dialogue and multi-dimensional action. This type of social change draws upon not only a range of industry, education, research, non-for-profit and governmental perspectives – but also young people's ideas, expertise and experiences as well.

What do young people think about cyberbullying, youth and the law?

So how can we engage with young people on this complex issue? The 'Digital Jigsaw' is a national crowdsourcing campaign for young people to help solve the puzzle of cyberbullying, young people and the law. Funded by the Federal Government, this project is led by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, in collaboration with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, the University of South Australia and the University of Western Sydney. Seven short videos and accompanying postcards have been created (with Project Rockit (opens in a new window), an anti-bullying and youth leadership program) highlighting aspects of the campaign. The online survey leads participants through these videos which explain various aspects of the law as it relates to cyberbullying and young people. It's an experiment in involving young people to consider and contribute to a complex set of issues. The survey is anonymous, completely secure and young people can contribute in their own time – wherever they can get online. Young people – aged 15 to 24 – from all over Australia are invited to participate to let the Australian Government know what they think about this complex issue. The survey can be accessed via the Social Portal website – and closes at midnight on Monday 7 April, 2014.

Teenagers are connecting and creating in new and different ways – and this is evolving as fast as the latest app gets released. Exploring young people's digital practices can help to highlight new insights and patterns which can advance online safety discussions and developments. For instance, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis explore the nuances of 'The App Generation' (opens in a new window)in their research. They describe the drawbacks and benefits of apps – as well as the nuances of how youth "navigate identity, intimacy and imagination in a digital world". Another researcher, Danah Boyd (opens in a new window)investigates how youth integrate technology into their everyday practices. In a New York Times interview, she describes how her new book It's Complicated seeks to surpass binary arguments about technology – to capture the complexity of the social life of 'networked teens'. These research insights highlight the difficulties of neatly categorising or predicting how young people interact – when life itself is so ever-changing and messy! They also highlight the importance of taking youth-centred approaches towards social change.

The right to be heard

Involving young people more in issues that affect them – like cyberbullying, youth and the law – can bring their views and perspectives into the heart of these ongoing conversations. As a timely reminder of the importance of youth participation and voice, this year UNICEF is approaching the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC):

Nearly 25 years ago, the world made a promise to children: that we would do everything in our power to protect and promote their rights to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and to reach their full potential.

In the rush of trying to keep up with the pace of technological and legal change – it highlights for us: firstly, the importance of fostering and valuing young people's wellbeing, and; secondly, that we are inclusive of their expertise and citizenship by enabling their capacity to be heard.