Social media therapy: Reaching out for help on Yik Yak

by The Dartmouth | 1/14/16 9:26pm


In our current culture of technological reliance and instant gratification, Yik Yak, the anonymous posting app, has quickly become one of the primary tools through which college students share and receive campus-related news.

As more and more Dartmouth students make checking the app a thoughtless habit, we seem to grow less affected by what each post is actually expressing. Amidst trite jokes and wry observations, a disturbing number of Yaks contain admissions of loneliness, depression, and doubt. Just in the past few days, casually scrolling through the feed, I saw three Yaks encompassing these sentiments. One said, “Anyone else here have literally no friends?” Another: “I feel so alone.” The other (which was quickly removed): “I sometimes wonder if I would be better off dead.”

Though sharing such emotions might grant students momentary comfort, the anonymous nature of Yik Yak would seem to prevent individuals from gaining truly meaningful or practical solutions to their concerns.

What, then, can account for the app’s growing popularity as a sort of virtual, collective diary? And more importantly, do these anonymous — and sometimes desperate — pleas for empathy actually benefit students in need?

One possible explanation for the sheer prevalence of Yik Yak confessions lies in our generation’s preference for immediate attention. Since the internet gives us instant access to information, goods and even potential romantic partners, it makes sense that we would crave similar efficiency in our need for compassion. And at first glance, access to instantaneous support would seem to be a good thing.

Luisa Vasquez ’18 corroborated this, saying that posting on Yik Yak can be a positive way to receive immediate help and advice.

“It could be a good outlet, if that’s what the person wants at that moment,” Vasquez said.

No longer must one wallow in anxiety as he or she waits for an opportune time to talk with a friend, or even simply summon the courage to have an honest discussion with someone. Having an ostensibly reliable source of support might also discourage students from experiencing further feelings of loneliness, especially if they find that others share similar sentiments.

Treeman Baker ’17, who said he reads Yik Yak occasionally but does not post on the app, said that when he does see cries for help on Yik Yak, responses have been largely compassionate.

“Mostly people would try to be kind and offer support,” Baker said.

Vasquez said that she, too, has seen mostly caring responses.

“I feel like in general, people get a lot of positive feedback,” Vasquez said. “People say you’re not alone, explain the resources, upvote the post, or say, ‘I’m here for you.’”

Yik Yak’s near guaranteed speedy responses, however, could also rob users of the desire to seek more sustained forms of help. After all, most mental health problems require serious work and self-reflection. Kind words from a well-meaning stranger might lift one’s spirits at the time, but they can only serve as temporary relief for problems that often require a much more long-term solution.

That being said, Yik Yak’s immediate response rate can be, at times, crucial to helping depressed individuals. Disturbingly, I have witnessed a number of Yaks in which users threaten suicide. Though a social media app might seem like a strange and counterproductive place for such outcries, it’a not entirely surprising in the context of our technologly-based world.

Though some Yik Yak users will tell individuals threatening suicide to talk to a more reliable source (as they should), simply being heard and acknowledged could be key to preventing desperate actions. While a suicide hotline might clearly be a more focused resource to utilize at such times, we can’t ignore that people will naturally turn to the tools they have experience using — in this case, Yik Yak.

Vasquez spoke about the tragic and even disturbing nature of these actions.

“It’s scary to think that some people might feel like they can only turn to Yik Yak in a time like that,” Vasquez said. “That they don’t feel like they have friends they could talk to.”

When perusing Yik Yak, I have often wondered myself what these desperate students do after posting. Do they follow the advice of commenters, and schedule an appointment at Dick’s House? Do they address their issues with a friend?

Casual users like me may never know the answer, due to the app’s anonymity.

This anonymous nature of Yik Yak itself is interesting in that it seems to increase the app’s popularity.

Julieta Feltrin ’17 and Carolyn Lee ’18 both said they think the app’s anonymity contributes significantly to its prevalence.

“If you talked to someone, you could probably get the same immediate feedback as you would [on Yik Yak],” Lee said. “I think it’s the anonymity that makes it popular.”

Feltrin expressed a similar opinion.

“If you wanted a quick response, you could also talk to your dean or a Dick’s House counselor,” Feltrin said. “It’s because it’s anonymous — no one will know who you are.”

While having one’s identity protected could to free users to talk more openly, it also ensures that any guidance offered will be non-specific. For this reason, it seems that, while Yik Yak might positively affect one’s feelings, it does little to remedy the underlying crisis.

Lee echoed this statement, claiming that while Yik Yak might be good for “venting,” the app can fall short in terms of providing genuine help.

“It does little to solve the problem; it helps [people] get stuff off their chest,” Lee said.

Yik Yak posts dealing with feelings of depression might actually serve to further isolate those in need, because a selective group of people is responding, and thus the posts might be met with judgment. Baker said that the occasional harsh response is likely due to exasperation rather than genuine mean-spiritedness.

“Yes [I have seen harsh comments], but I think it’s probably due to frustration that they can’t really do anything to help in real life,” Baker said.

Vasquez expressed a similar sentiment, specifically speaking to instances in which people post on Yik Yak about being friendless.

“I feel like when it’s about friendship, people can tend to make really snarky comments,” Vasquez said.

The nature of these posts also speaks to the continued stigma surounding issues of mental health, despite all the increased attention paid to these issues on our campus in recent years. Perhaps in some instances people feel as though there is no one to whom they can confide, or simply don’t want to bring up such a topic to friends in fear of feeling awkward or embarrassed.

Vasquez said some of the resources for those with mental health concerns might not be quite as immediately available as a response on Yik Yak would be.

“[The other resources] might not be as accessible as people want or need in moments of dire need,” Vasquez said.

Another interesting — if not disturbing — question is the extent to which Dartmouth’s competitive atmosphere can also contribute to the frequency of these desperate outcries, and the popularity of Yik Yak at Dartmouth overall. College students often wrestle with the need to appear socially successful and having an active social life becomes all the more important at a school small enough to make everyone’s private life public knowledge. Though I have yet to find one Dartmouth student who is truly free of anxiety or the occasional doubt, these feelings are often masked under a façade of carefree sociability.

In our college culture, admitting personal weakness is sadly often equated with failure. Yik Yak’s anonymity allows users to admit their concerns without attaching their name. This could be arugably be an advantage of the app: people can be honest.

Lee said this can certainly be a beneficial aspect of the app.

“Everyone at Dartmouth seems to always have it together,” Lee said. “So it is nice to know that there are other people in the community who don’t.”

Vasquez said that she can see the benefit of Yik Yak in that it can encourage people to see that they are not alone in their distress and can even help them feel unified with the rest of the Dartmouth community.

However, as aforementioned, ultimately, these people are only a little better off because they are not receiving the individual help and attention they need.

There is also the question of the seriousness of both posts and responses on Yik Yak. Of the people I interviewed, all claimed to be just “casual users” on Yik Yak, preferring to scroll through posts in dull moments rather than write any comments.

Baker said he’s seen posts expressing loneliness and isolation, but doesn’t think the majority of yaks are serious.

“I think it’s more about making a joke that will get attention,” Baker said.

Feltrin, who is an undergraduate advisor, explained that when she has responded to comments about loneliness on Yik Yak once or twice, she has wondered if the concerns were genuine.

“I wonder if they’re real or not,” Feltrin said. “If they’re a real person or it’s some kid having a fun time to see who will respond.”

Feltrin said in such instances, if the people are real, she hopes they follow her advice to seek help and speak with their UGA.

These responses about the potentially apocryphal nature of desperate posts can suggest an ironic — perhaps even dangerous — disconnect between the app’s casual atmosphere and the serious nature of some posts.

Not all Yik Yaks that express sentiments of isolation, however, are as dire as the ones previously discussed. Many yakkers attempt to combine humor with expressions of loneliness, particularly when discussing a lackluster romantic life. Though many casual viewers of Yik Yak bemoan these posts as desperate or attention-seeking, their seemingly harmless nature might be indicative of a more detrimental trend in the romantic lives of college students.

It is often stated that hook-up culture reigns supreme on campuses everywhere, but such an environment grows all the more problematic when the scene goes digital. It is not unheard of for some Yik Yak users to (perhaps jokingly) request hook ups with other anonymous users or to vent frustrations about their sexual desires.

Due to the app’s nature, it is doubtful that anything real ever comes of such requests, so the purpose of these yaks might merely be to seek some semblance of positive affirmation or share frustration.

Baker said he thinks the purpose of these posts is more to “get a reaction” and perhaps express solidarity more than anything else. He said he doubts anything actually results from these, but it is possible.

“I’m guessing not, but who knows?” Baker said.

It would seem to me, as well as the Dartmouth students I have interviewed, that Yik Yak posts expressing loneliness and depression are a somewhat inevitable side effect of our modern college environment. While such posts might have some very real benefits to individuals, they should clearly never be anyone’s primary method of dealing with personal anxieties.

Feltrin and Vasquez both spoke to the multitude of resources at Dartmouth for struggling students, that all would likely result in more tangible and sustainable solutions than Yik Yak.

The sheer prominence of these yaks leads one to wonder if today’s college students are really more depressed than ever, or are just simply expressing healthy fears in an increasingly visible — but perhaps, less than ideal — forum.

The answer is certainly hard to evaluate, and the anonymous nature of the app complicates such analysis, yet I am inclined to believe that our ability to communicate honestly with people in real life is very much at risk. When talking to someone face to face, empathy and understanding are more readily available, and conversations are able to be truly healing. Furthermore, expressing vulnerability can strengthen relationships — providing a source for trust, comfort and honest discussions in the future.

While technology has clearly broken many barriers in our personal lives, it is important to recognize and remedy the accompanying complications it brings.