ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: Today - anonymity online, bullying and suicide prevention. Yik Yak, an app where people post comments anonymously, is well-known as a place for gossip and vicious insults. That happens in other spaces, too, where users don't use their real names. Malicious social media posts have been linked to a number of teen suicides in the past few years. But some users argue anonymous space can also be good. It can be a place to post a cry for help. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Samantha Braver is a rising sophomore at the College of William and Mary. She uses Yik Yak, which allows you to post things anonymously. She was just scrolling through her feed, like, 45 minutes before we talked and she came across a post that concerned her.
SAMANTHA BRAVER: Yeah, that's the screenshots that I sent you.
SHAHANI: All she knows about the person posting is that he or she is physically nearby, within a five-mile radius.
BRAVER: Someone wrote something like, I want to turn off all my emotions. I can't handle this anymore.
SHAHANI: Braver's school, based in Williamsburg, Va., has had three student deaths on campus in the last year - two confirmed suicides. The fact that students can and do hurt themselves is not a joke. In response to the specific Yak as they're called...
BRAVER: Someone commented you need to reach out for help and another person wrote we care about you even if others don't feel like that. I wrote you're loved. Please don't do this.
SHAHANI: Across college campuses, students and counselors say, students are posting their suicidal thoughts. Some are subtle - not explicitly about feelings. Emily Reiling, a student at Villanova - just outside of Philadelphia, -reads one like that.
EMILY REILING: They posted if I were to put up my laptop for free or for sale, would anyone buy it?
SHAHANI: Yakkers started responding, yeah, I'd buy or take it from you.
REILING: Somebody asked where they could pick up this free stuff. And the student said at the Bryn Mawr Hospital, so then people were concerned, why would he or she be at a hospital?
SHAHANI: The thread changed. Yakkers downvoted previous responses about freebies. With five downvotes a post gets automatically deleted. People offered an ear to listen, a hug, free cookies, and even after weeks went by, there was follow-up.
REILING: Somebody said, I hope summer is really good to you and then the original poster said, you guys are sweet. Thank you.
SHAHANI: In March, a student at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia took his own life. Jessica Reingold, who just graduated, recalls a very explicit Yik Yak post in the days after, saying something like I'm super lonely. I think I'm going to kill myself. People immediately posted supportive words and the number to a suicide hotline. Reingold went a step further.
JESSICA REINGOLD: I said, and if you need anyone to talk to, I'll meet up with you.
SHAHANI: She didn't give her contact information and say, hey, call me.
REINGOLD: Oh, my gosh, no, no, no.
SHAHANI: And the person in trouble didn't reply. But if he or she did...
REINGOLD: I would've posted a time and then, like, a meet-up place somewhere on campus. And that's how people usually would meet up to do other things.
SHAHANI: By other things she means make out. Yik Yak is famous and infamous on college campuses for enabling casual hookups, gossip, rumors. Barrages of racist and sexist comments have prompted a handful of campuses to ban the app. But Reingold says, the Yik Yak comments about suicide are consistently helpful, not mean or dumb. That could be because the conversations offline are consistent, too.
REINGOLD: Because we've been educated to never assume that they're joking. You always take them seriously.
SHAHANI: Mental health counselor Nancy Stockton at the University of Indiana says it's great that students have a new place to find support. But if someone says they've swallowed a half-bottle of pills, Yik Yak is not the solution. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to the University of Indiana. The school is named Indiana University.]
NANCY STOCKTON: If they were talking with the suicide hotline that has a way of knowing who's called, 9-1-1 emergency personnel could be dispatched immediately.
SHAHANI: There's a big difference between people who are kind of depressed and people seriously on the brink. Counselors hope Yik Yak users will encourage the latter group to get real help. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.
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