Popular applications and websites have students like Staples High School senior Zoe Brown wondering whether the ability to hide our identities online can pose a real problem.
Her doubts surround a bulletin-board style application called YikYak, where users can see anonymous comments posted from within a one-and-a-half mile radius.
Developers designed YikYak to help connect people in any given area. While some professors say it helps them understand their students’ struggles, Brown quickly learned the app can do more harm than good.
“There were posts talking about girls and boys doing sexual things, girls and boys being gay, students being fat,” said Brown. “And no one could get anyone in trouble because no one knew who was posting these.”
She added that several of her classmates ended up going home early after just one day of YikYak. Administrators at Staples High banned the app on day two, and several other schools have since followed their lead.
But as Quinnipiac professor Rich Hanley points out, kids aren’t the only ones taking advantage of online anonymity.
“The technology has far outstripped our maturity to use it,” said Hanley. “So young people, and even adults, tend to act more on impulse online than they would in the physical environment.”
After all, between websites’ comments sections and apps that support anonymity, it’s simply too easy to hide behind an alias.
“Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s right,” said Hanley. “Just because you can be funny doesn’t mean it’s funny.”
For example, our NBC Connecticut Facebook page featured a story about a Tennessee girl bullied after she posted pictures of her prom dress. While most comments supported the teen and her community rallying around her, several did not.
One man said, “It must have taken 2 communities to RALLY AROUND HER.”
And another, “I didn’t know they made prom dresses for SUVs.”
These types of comments are just part of the online culture, according to Hanley. As for changing that culture, Hanley doesn’t believe we can police a system that removes anonymity. Instead, he suggests people focus on life in the real world.
“Because that’s the life that counts,” said Hanley. “Online life doesn’t matter really. So just realize what matters is your life in the physical world, because that’s what’s going to bring success and happiness.”
YikYak did not return a request for comment.