But chilling interactions on that social networking platform—called Yubo—have surfaced between kids around the world and the 18-year-old who killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week.
That’s left school counselors, teachers, and others who support teenagers grappling with how to help when another kid online sends pictures of guns or dead cats; threatens to rape or kidnap them, then brushes it off as a joke; or even explicitly talks about plans to massacre elementary schoolers, as the shooter reportedly did.
Educators say it’s critical that students understand such behavior is unacceptable, even if 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 May 24 slayings didn’t find anything particularly remarkable about it. She told the Washington Post: “That’s how online is.”
That reaction doesn’t surprise Roberto Aguilar, a school counselor at Milwaukie High School, near Portland, Ore.
Such behavior, “probably is normalized,” online, Aguilar said. But he wants his students to know that “just because it’s [considered] normal doesn’t mean you have to stand for it. You can, at least in your own world, demand change. We shouldn’t settle for being treated this way.”
One obvious way to challenge disturbing behavior young people encounter online: Tell an adult and report it to the app, said Erin Wilkey Oh, the content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based nonprofit research organization that studies technology’s impact on kids.
But that didn’t seem to help in this case. One teen, 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 appeared to remain active, the Post reported.
Companies like Yubo, “are unable to moderate and respond well to this kind of discourse on their platform,” Wilkey Oh said. “And that’s a huge problem.”
Yubo did not respond to Education Week’s requests for information about how the company handled reports of the shooter’s online behavior or how it verifies the age of people using the platform. A spokeswoman told the Post that Yubo could not say whether it received reports about the shooter’s interactions on its platform, or legally share information about them, because they are part of an ongoing investigation. She did not tell the paper which law barred Yubo from disclosing those details.
Preparing kids for the new ‘boogeyman’
When social media companies fail to act on students’ 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 gotten used to helping students identify and steer clear of adult predators on social media platforms, McNeiley said. But now, she feels she needs to prepare her middle schoolers for creepy behavior from kids nearer their own age.
In the past, “the boogeyman didn’t look like the 17- or 18-year-old next door. Now he does,” McNeiley said. In their online interactions, she wants her students to consider what “positive relationships look like,” especially when they are getting attention from someone online who disguises harassment as romantic interest, she said.
If they are going to help with specific cases of online harassment, counselors need to build relationships with kids, she added.
“That way, when something like this happens, they can talk to 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 these chats.”
It would have been difficult for many of the people who had unsettling interactions with the shooter on the app to report him to law enforcement, since he was identified only by a username and photo.
That also leaves school counselors limited in what they can do if a student has concerns about the mental state of someone living far away. When a kid feels threatened locally, “we will report it right away,” 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 pressed for information, even a phone number, which the student was reluctant to givet. Ultimately, in an instance like that, he can’t do much to intervene.
A sector of apps 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 check out images of people in their area and around the world. They can jump in on livestreams, or peruse profiles, swiping right on those they like and swiping left on those they don’t, just like adults do on the Tinder dating app. Users who “like” each other can communicate directly, on streaming video.
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 kids as young as 13 to join, it is not appropriate for children that age, according to a 2018 review of the platform by Common Sense Media.
The nonprofit recommended that users should be at least 17 years old. “For kids, the app is a no-go,” the group wrote.
Still, the concept isn’t unique. Other apps allow teens to 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.
Those kinds of interactions are “pretty impossible to moderate,” said Christine Elgersma, a senior editor for learning content at Common Sense Media.
Yubo has an online safety guide and cautions users against posting inappropriate content. But, when Common Sense Media examined the app, “it was easy to find substance use, profanity, racial slurs, and scantily clad people,” the nonprofit’s review said. Livestreams showed teens “smoking marijuana, using racial slurs, and talking about graphic sex.” What’s more, anonymous viewers can comment on and even record live-streamers, the organization found.
Particularly troubling for educators: Teens 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 younger than 13 to game the system by lying about their age, Common Sense Media found.
Last month, though, Yubo announced it will address such concerns by adding age-verification software for users who claim to be 13 or 14 years old. Younger teens don’t tend to have official government identification, so the app requires them to upload a photo. It then uses facial recognition software—which the company says has a 98.9 percent accuracy rate—to figure out 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 for
Caring adults—including teachers, counselors, and school leaders—can help teens pinpoint the “red flags” that might signal they’re more likely to find hate speech, violent threats, or graphic sexual content on an app, Wilkey Oh of Common Sense Media said.
For example, kids should be on their guard when a site allows them to be anonymous. Anonymity isn’t a sure sign that 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 risk” she said, because it’s tough for outsiders to see what goes on in them.
Students also need to consider how apps like Yubo impact them emotionally, especially one that essentially has kids decide who to interact with based mostly on physical appearance.
Teens should ask themselves, “does it feel like a supportive community, or does it feel toxic?” If students are unable to quit an app that they realize is detrimental to them, the adults in their lives need to help them understand why, Wilkey Oh said.
Those are particularly critical questions for kids currently in middle and high school, McNeiley said. Much of their social life already was taking place online, but during the pandemic, they were isolated and often left to their own devices—literally, she said.
“Because of the pandemic, they were at home so much that they kind of [went] supersonic,” on platforms like Yubo, she said. “Parents were working, [kids] were at home, what were they doing? This is what they were doing. This [online] culture is across the board. This [goes] beyond race, beyond the class. ... This is this generation, and what are we going to do about it?”
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Uvalde Shooter Posted Threats on Yubo. What to Know About the App and Others Like It