Beyond Bullying: The Real Dangers of Anonymous Apps Like Sarahah
Everybody’s buzzing about Sarahah, the latest of many anonymous apps to score big with teens, but this kind of digital platform (and the problems that can spring from it) are anything but new. For years, apps like Whisper, ask.fm, and the now-defunct Yik Yak have allowed users to solicit anonymous comments from others on anything they might ask. The questions teens pose on these apps for friends and strangers to answer range from “Do you think I’m pretty?” to some that are, well, a bit more scandalous in tone. As one might expect when young people feel they’re free to say whatever they want without consequence— bullying, oversharing personal information, and loads of general drama have been close to follow wherever these apps pop up.
And although you as a parent should of course always be on high alert for bullying and other kinds of aggressive behavior that might affect your daughter, there are other equally damaging dangers these apps pose that you might not have thought about.
One of the main benefits of using Sarahah, according to its official website, is that you can “let your friends be honest with you.” At first glance, that seems like a good thing, right? We all like honesty, and actually expect it from our friends. But when you pause to think about it, the statement implies that without this app, your friends aren’t being honest with you and likely never will be honest to your face. That’s not just sad, it’s downright concerning.
“There’s data that show kids growing up with cell phones—and the texting and messaging apps that go along with them—are having fewer face-to-face interactions with their peers than previous generations,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “That means many of them are already trailing behind where they should be in terms of developing healthy, open, and direct communication skills. Anonymous apps that tout themselves as a place for honesty are actually adding to the problem. They’re breeding distrust among this generation and causing girls to second-guess themselves. If you think about it, there’s nothing honest about having to hide behind a mask or fake username to say how you really feel.”
All of us, of course, want to raise kids who are confident and brave enough to stand up for themselves and say how they feel without hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. We also hope they’ll be compassionate enough to not say purposefully mean or insulting things, regardless of the situation. But when given the option of being anonymous, it can be all too tempting for young people to let shyness (or, in bad cases, misplaced relational aggression) take over.
So what can you do to help combat the effect of Sarahah and other apps like it—and to foster the skills of truly honest and open communication? Follow these tips from Dr. Bastiani Archibald:
1. Talk to your daughter
It might sound obvious, but the first step to help her learn she doesn’t need an anonymous app to have honest conversations is actually having an honest conversation with her yourself! Ask her if she’s heard of apps like these, if kids at her school have them, and what people talk about or share on them. Has she heard of anybody saying anything mean or derogatory? What about nice things? Do people use them to share compliments? But mostly—why does she think all of these kids feel the need to be anonymous to say what they really feel? Listen to her thoughts with an open mind, and then share your own. When you take the time to understand what’s going on in her world and how she feels about things, she’s more likely to take your advice to heart.
2. Know your apps
When you do the occasional spot check on your girl’s phone, look at which apps she has downloaded. And yes, you should do random spot checks every couple of weeks—it’s not an invasion of her privacy, you’re just parenting her responsibly and making sure everything’s alright. If you find new or unfamiliar apps, take a minute to look them up in the app store and online to see what they’re about. Some private messaging apps are actually disguised as other things, like calculators (really!), so it’s important to go full-on Nancy Drew and research them all, regardless of the icon design or display name.
3. Keep talking
One open and honest conversation about anonymous apps isn’t going to cut it. If you want your girl to engage in meaningful, authentic conversations, it helps to have them (frequently!) in your own home. Avoid asking her yes or no questions about her day, and get her to open up with more detailed questions instead, like, “who did you sit with today at lunch?” or “I saw a news story about [something relevant to teens], what do you think about that?” Similarly, when the two of you disagree on things, resist the urge to say, “because I said so,” and instead really talk it out—let her advocate for herself, perhaps negotiate, and explain her point of view while you do the same. In a world filled with anonymous apps and surface-only communications, you still have the opportunity to teach her to connect with others on a more meaningful level and navigate tricky situations with honesty and compassion.