At the start of the fall semester for Nebraska students across the state, students were re-downloading a controversial app that was once removed from app stores.
The app Yik Yak, which has millions of monthly users, advertises itself as a way to “anonymously connect” with other college students within a 5-mile radius. According to the app’s terms of service, a user must only be 13 years old to create an account; however, a college email ending in “.edu” is required.
Karen Haase, an attorney in private practice and owner of KSB School Law, said that although a student email is required to create an account, a user can easily use an email that does not belong to them to create an account.
“I have fake accounts on all these platforms so that I can see what’s happening,” Haase said.
Haase routinely presents at K-12 schools around the state, informing students, faculty, and parents on the latest patterns and dangers of social media usage. Yik Yak is an app that Haase said many parents don’t know anything about when she visits these schools, regardless of the age of their children.
Parents who are not geographically close to their children’s school may be unable to see the same content they are viewing on the app, due to its localized nature. This content often includes talk of self-harm, drugs and sexually explicit behavior, according to Haase.
“If you want to see what your child is seeing on Yik Yak, you’re going to have to physically go to where your child hangs out,” Haase said. “That will give you a better flavor of what Yik Yak is like.”
The app, which was previously launched in late 2013, was removed from the app store in 2017 due to threats made on the app and several suicides that were linked to posts across the United States. Haase, whose law firm represents educational entities across the state, said she knew of multiple incidents involving Yik Yak in the first launch of the app.
“We had all kinds of trouble in K-12 with Yik Yak,” Haase said. “We had multiple threats of school violence. We even had one student make an attempt on his own life after being so horrifically bullied on Yik Yak.”
Agustin Champion, the education and training sergeant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department, said there have been eight incidents involving Yik Yak on the university’s campus since 2021.
A few of these incidents centered around mental health issues and posts related to self-harm, according to Champion. While eight incidents in two years is a relatively low amount for a social media app, Champion said most incidents on other apps involve scams rather than threats or self-harm.
“Some people have suicidal thoughts, and they feel like they don’t have people to talk to,” Champion said. ”So we have had a few reports where people post, on Yik Yak, some concerning information.”
Samantha Ziebarth, a University of Nebraska at Kearney student, said Yik Yak has had popularity on campus for the past two years.
Ziebarth said she believes that most of the Yik Yak users are underclassmen because of posts focusing on freshman dorms.
“People will also post about where different parties are at, and they always get busted by the police,” Ziebarth said.
According to Champion, police officers at UNL will sporadically monitor the app themselves, even when not investigating specific reports.
In the second launch of Yik Yak, owned by Square, Inc., Haase said the app has been more “cooperative” with law enforcement and that she herself has received user information from the app’s employees.
“When someone’s posting, and we suspect that it’s a high school student, and they’re posting something either about drug use, sexually aggressive behavior, some kind of forcible sexual contact, or threat of school violence, then we usually hear about that,” Haase said. “Yik Yak has been super cooperative this time around in getting us that information, and it’s surprisingly simple.”
Lauren Kruger, a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has used the app for the last two years. Aside from posts that warrant intervention from law enforcement, Kruger said she has seen many posts that target or make jokes about specific university organizations or students, even making claims of them having “racist” or “homophobic” affiliations.
“For students that don’t understand that it is kind of a satirical app, I think it can be very harmful,” Kruger said. “I think a lot of people might get turned away from certain people or clubs or classes because of it, which is really unfortunate.”
Haase said her largest piece of advice to consider when downloading the app or monitoring your child’s app usage is to remember that an anonymous platform is never really anonymous.
“My biggest frustration with any app that purports to offer anonymity is that its fundamental premise is false,” Haase said. “I think that’s the most important thing for college-aged users to understand: you are not really anonymous.”