You know that your children use Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. You might even be aware that these types of social media apps bring some inherent dangers, often leading to distractions and self-esteem issues.
But beyond the most commonly available social media apps, today lies a layer of platforms that might be even more harmful to your children. Anonymous apps allow tweens and teens to freely share their thoughts and message each other, without ever having to attach their name. The newest example, Sarahah, is now making waves across the United States since making its way to the app store this past summer.
What is Sarahah?
The set up is simple. Users set up a personal profile page, similar to but simpler than Facebook, that describes them. Once that page exist, anyone can leave comments and feedback to the person who created the profile.
Digitally savvy parents will recognize this format as an early version of Facebook, before the existence of a news feed that collected thoughts and posts from all users. However, there is a significant difference: Sarahah promotes and encourages anonymity.
The origin story of this app is relatively interesting. It was developed by Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, who created it as a tool for employees to provide open feedback to their bosses. In Arabic, Sarahah means “frankness” or “honesty.”
Had it stayed with its original use, it might have actually lived a good life as a productivity, workplace culture-enhancing app. But that’s far from the case. Today, its rapid rise has made Sarahah one of the most popular apps in the world. Today, it’s the #1 app in Apple’s app store in most major economies, and #5 in Google’s Play Store. It attracts more than 20 million users each day, many of whom are children and teenagers.
Understanding the Dangers of Anonymous Apps like Sarahah
At this point, every parent should be paying attention. An app that allows teenagers to anonymously post feedback about their peers carries inherent dangers that cannot be mentioned enough. The app, as BuzzFeed details, is completely anonymous; in other words, not even the creator could unearth who writes what comments. Of course, that also means no oversight against bullying or other problematic content.
In that way, Sarahah follows directly in the footsteps of other anonymous apps before it, like Ask.fm and Yik Yak. All of them have come under scrutiny for the negative effects they can have on children; in fact, Yik Yak is now shut down for the harm it caused tweens and teenagers. Sarahah takes the concept one step further, by allowing aggregation of comments on individual profile pages.
Don’t take it from us. The app store reviews for Sarahah speak for themselves:
“My son signed up for an account and within 24 hrs someone posted a horrible racist comment on his page including saying that he should be lynched,” read one review re-posted by Business Insider. “The site is a breeding ground for hate.”
“Parents, don’t allow your kids to get this app,” another wrote. “This is an app breeding suicides.” A third suggested: “I don’t recommend going on here unless you wish to be bullied”.
Parents are not the only ones sounding the alarm. In addition, teenagers themselves are speaking out. In an interview with Pittsburgh-based WPXI, 17-year old Autumn Heim detailed her experience with Sarahah:
I got a lot of inappropriate messages. There’s a couple messages, like bullying. But most of the time it’s kinda sexual. I think that it can be like, kind of dangerous. Because I know other people, they’ve gotten some pretty mean messages and they’re like, that it rolls off their back. But like, most of the time it can be kind of damaging.
The complete anonymity provided by the app, in other words, gives children free reign to impose dangerous thoughts about their peers. With no oversight, the results can be uncomfortable at best and harmful at worst, ranging from sexual harassment to cyberbullying. With no way to trace these comments back to their creator, the limits are almost endless.
And it doesn’t end there. The app actually harvests the contact information from all users to make initial connections. In other words, it’s much easier to find people you already know, and focus your comments on them. This practice also invites security concerns, as Sarahah does not disclose what all it does with these contact lists.
How Can I Protect My Children From Dangerous Apps?
Your first step as a parent should be highlighting the dangers that these types of apps can bring. As mentioned above, your children may already be seeing the negative effects of anonymity on their own but might need an adult voice to support them in their decision to not give in to peer pressure.
If your teenager insists on using the app, and you trust them to use it responsibly, make sure they understand the opt-out possibilities. For instance, users are able to prevent their profile from being searchable, which means that they have more control over who writes comments. With this type of control mechanism, the app’s original purpose – to provide positive, open feedback – may be more attainable.
Finally, especially for younger children, the best step may be to simply prevent access to apps like Sarahah. If apps like this become a problem for your children of any age they are easy to block when you use a trustworthy parental control. Netsanity, you can regulate the types of apps your children are able to download, allowing you to act as a gatekeeper and protect your kids from harm.