Until last month, many adults who work in schools had probably never heard of an app dubbed “Tinder for teens.”
But chilling interactions on this social media platform called Yubo have surfaced between children around the world and the 18-year-old who killed 19 children and two teachers. at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TexasLast week.
This leaves school counselors, teachers and others who help teens wondering how to help when another child online sends pictures of guns or dead cats; threatens to rape or kidnap them, then treats it as a joke; or even explicitly talks about plans to massacre elementary school children, as the shooter allegedly did.
Educators say it’s critical students understand that such behavior is unacceptable, even though it has become so common in digital spaces that at least one girl who interacted with the shooter in the weeks leading up to the murders of May 24 found nothing particularly noteworthy about this. She told the Washington Post, “That’s how it is online.”
This reaction comes as no surprise to Roberto Aguilar, school counselor at Milwaukie High School, near Portland, Ore.
Such behavior “is likely normalized” online, Aguilar said. But he wants his students to know that “just because it’s [considered] normal doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. You can, at least in your own world, demand change. We shouldn’t be content to be treated this way.
Erin Wilkey Oh, director of content for family and community engagement at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit research organization that studies how technology impacts children.
But that didn’t seem to help in this case. A teenager, who shared a recorded death threat from the shooter with the Washington Post said he and his friends reported the shooter to Yubo multiple times. But they never heard back from the social media company, which is open to users as young as 13, and the shooter’s profile appears to remain active, the Post reported.
Companies like Yubo, “are unable to moderate and respond well to this kind of talk on their platform,” Wilkey Oh said. “And that’s a huge problem.”
Yubo did not respond to requests from Education Week for information on how the company handled reports of the shooter’s online behavior or how it verifies the ages of people using the platform. A spokeswoman told the Post that Yubo could not say whether it had received any reports of the shooter’s interactions on its platform, or legally sharing information about them, as they are part of an ongoing investigation. She did not tell the newspaper what law prohibited Yubo from divulging those details.
Preparing the kids for the new “boogeyman”
When social media companies don’t act on student reports, it reinforces the idea that harassment and threats are just “normal behavior,” said Lydia McNeiley, a counselor at Scott Middle School in Hammond, Ind. .
School counselors have become accustomed to helping students identify and avoid adult predators on social media platforms, McNeiley said. But now she feels she must prepare her middle schoolers for the creepy behavior of children closer to their age.
In the past, “the boogeyman didn’t look like the 17- or 18-year-old neighbor. Now he does,” McNeiley said. In their online interactions, she wants her students to think about what “positive relationships look like,” especially when they come to the attention of someone online who disguises bullying as a romantic interest, he said. she stated.
If they want to help with specific cases of online bullying, counselors need to build relationships with children, she added.
“That way when something like this happens, they can tell you about it,” McNeiley said. “They might not want to have those conversations with their parents because the parents might not know they’re on those chats.”
It would have been difficult for many people who had troubling interactions with the shooter on the app to report him to law enforcement, as he was only identified by a username and photo.
It also leaves school counselors limited in what they can do if a student is concerned about the mental state of someone living far away. When a child feels threatened locally, “we will report it immediately,” Aguilar said. “But if they’re in Toronto, or whatever, I don’t know how we notify the authorities.”
One of Aguilar’s students told him that they had connected on another social media app – Discord – with a suicidal kid in another state. In response, Aguilar insisted on getting information, even a phone number, which the student was reluctant to give. Ultimately, in a case like this, he can’t do much to intervene.
A sector of applications aimed at young people
Apps like Yubo have found their own niche in the social media space.
Yubo, which tells teens it will help them “find your crew based on your interests”, allows users to create a profile, share their location and view pictures of people in their area and around the world. They can participate in live streams or browse profiles, swipe right on those they like and swipe left on those they dislike, just like adults do on the dating app Tinder. Users who “like” each other can communicate directly, via video streaming.
Yubo’s user base has grown from 40 million in 2020 to 60 million in 2022. Ninety-nine percent of those users are between the ages of 13 and 25, according to TechCrunch.which reports on technology and startups.
But while Yubo allows children as young as 13 to sign up, it’s not appropriate for kids that age, according to a 2018 review of the platform by Common Sense Media.
The nonprofit organization recommended that users be at least 17 years old. “For children, the app is prohibited,” the group wrote.
However, the concept is not unique. Other apps let teens browse photos and then chat online with strangers, including Wizz – Make New Friends, BIGO Live and MeetMe – Meet, Chat & Go Live, according to Common Sense Media.
These types of interactions are “pretty impossible to moderate,” said Christine Elgersma, senior learning content editor at Common Sense Media.
Yubo has an online safety guide and warns users against posting inappropriate content. But, when Common Sense Media reviewed the app, “it was easy to find substance use, profanity, racial slurs, and scantily clad people,” the nonprofit organization’s review said. Live streams showed teenagers “smoking marijuana, using racial slurs and talking about graphic sex.” Additionally, anonymous viewers can comment on and even record live streams, the organization found.
Particularly troubling for educators: Teenagers are sometimes livestreamed on the app at school, Common Sense Media found.
Until very recently, anyone claiming to be 13 or older could download the app. But it was easy for kids under 13 to cheat the system by lying about their age, Common Sense Media found.
Last month, however, Yubo announced that it would address those concerns by adding age verification software for users who claim to be 13 or 14 years old. Young teens usually don’t have official government ID, so the app asks them to upload a photo. It then uses facial recognition software – which the company says has a 98.9% accuracy rate – to determine if the user appears to be the age listed in their profile. Yubo plans to use the screening process for all ages by the end of the year, TechCrunch reported..
What adults can help kids watch out for
Caring adults, including teachers, counselors and school leaders, can help teens identify “red flags” that might signal they are more likely to find hate speech, violent threats or bullying. graphic sexual content on an app, Common Sense Media’s Wilkey Oh said.
For example, children should be on their guard when a site allows them to be anonymous. Anonymity isn’t a sure sign users will encounter “this kind of cruelty” on a particular platform, but the two often go hand in hand, Wilkey Oh said. Anonymous users are less likely to think about the consequences of their behavior.
Other Yubo features, like private chat rooms, “also carry risks,” she said, because it’s hard for strangers to see what’s going on there.
Students also need to consider the emotional impact of apps like Yubo, especially ones that essentially let kids decide who to interact with based primarily on their physical appearance.
Teens should ask themselves, “Does this sound like a supportive community or does this sound toxic?” If students are unable to quit an app that they realize is harmful to them, the adults in their lives need to help them figure out why, Wilkey Oh said.
These are especially critical questions for kids currently in middle and high school, McNeiley said. Much of their social life was already happening online, but during the pandemic they were isolated and often on their own, literally, she said.
“Because of the pandemic, they were so at home that they [went] supersonic,” on platforms like Yubo, she said. “The parents were working, [kids] were at home, what were they doing? That’s what they were doing. This [online] culture is at all levels. This [goes] beyond race, beyond class. … It’s this generation, and what are we going to do about it?