Remember those ’80s “slam books” (thanks, The Facts of Life!), where you could anonymously write whatever cruel things you wanted about your classmates? Yup, there’s an app for that. As bullying expands from schoolyards to social media feeds, some of my 14-year-old daughter’s peers are discovering the freedom to hurl insults far and wide from behind their devices.
Sarahah is one of the most popular free smartphone apps, not far behind big social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Sarahah, which, loosely translated, means “frankness” or “honesty” in Arabic, is true to its name, allowing its users to provide anonymous feedback to others as a so-called “self-development” tool. To date, the app has 14 million registered users and more than 20 million unique visitors each day. And, though a disclaimer says that you must be at least 17 years old to download the app, many kids who are using it are a lot younger.
Its creator, Saudi Arabian app developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, said it was originally intended for use in the workplace as a way to provide constructive criticism without fearing retribution from colleagues and bosses. But it has quickly become the app of choice for teens, many of whom are either fishing for compliments or looking to share burns about classmates with whoever opens themselves up to public commentary.
Used with other social media apps, such as Instagram and Snapchat, the app lets you ask for feedback from friends (who need to be registered, too) by putting your personal Sarahah link into a post. You can ask questions like “What do you think of this dress?” You can also comment on the posts of friends who have the app without being identified at all. The feedback goes both ways. You can open yourself up to criticism and you can dish it out.
At a time when “trolling” is the norm and one-fifth of young Canadians admit to being harassed or stalked online, apps like Sarahah just add fuel to the fire as anonymity absolves those who are criticizing others of any responsibility. And if your Instagram account is public, you’re actually opening yourself up to comments from anyone with the app, not just your friends. Your profile is also searchable within the app and desktop site, unless you keep it private.
Only you can see the comments received, but users have been taking screen grabs to share them, whether to humblebrag about something flattering or to call out bad behaviour, especially because you can’t respond to comments.
“The app lets you ask questions and say what you think of someone,” my 14-year-old daughter, Miranda, tells me. She doesn’t use it herself, but many of her friends use it regularly. “No one tells their parents,” she says, which shocks me most.
While kids might be keeping the app under wraps, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP), as well as various police departments across the United States and elsewhere, have been warning parents about Sarahah.
Ciera Durrant, a 16-year-old grade 11 student, was a regular user of Sarahah but deleted the app after three months because she found it too negative. Ciera says that things got heated when a friend from school posted about getting engaged to her boyfriend, and that’s when people “got nasty.” Meanwhile, other friends of Ciera’s have received “nice little compliments here and there from people.” Still, she says, “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad app; it’s the way people use it.”
Ciera’s mother, Natalie Bell, isn’t as indifferent about the app. “I think there are enough face-to-face issues, never mind anonymous feedback online, especially if your child has experienced bullying,” she says. “It’s [full of] useless, negative comments that people put on there to make others feel bad.”
Bell says she is relieved that her daughter no longer uses the app. “It’s too easy for folks to sit behind a screen and say whatever they want,” she says. “I don’t want my kids to be the recipients or initiators [of criticism].”
A quick search of Sarahah’s reviews reinforce these fears. “Apps like this should be banned,” says one Facebook user. “It’s absolutely disgusting. Kids are using this app to be evil and bully others.” From the Google Play Store, there’s a similar complaint: “This is nothing more than a platform to bully and say inappropriate things. I personally know someone who is being sent inappropriate messages. If you want it to truly be anonymous, you need to allow messages to be reported when inappropriate.”
While Sarahah is getting a lot of media attention, it’s just the latest in a string of “anonymous apps,” including predecessors like Yik Yak and Ask.fm and current competitors like tbh. Critics of these apps suggest removing anonymity features, adding filters to screen for abuse and giving users the ability to block people (one feature that Sarahah has added) to stop the potential for cyberbullying.
The CCCP recommends that parents have frank discussions early on about the dangers of these sorts of apps. It also recommends that teen users change the settings so that they can’t be found in the search function and to only share their usernames with people they know.
But even if the app is used with caution, experts still have concerns. Clinical psychologist Sean Hayes, who specializes in the education and healthcare sectors, says that normally, anonymity “assumes or demands that the communicator is morally, ethically and emotionally mature to communicate.” The problem with apps like Sarahah is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that teens who are providing criticism aren’t emotionally mature enough to do so. “A tool like Sarahah, which doesn’t require identification, makes it incredibly easy to reach out and not only touch someone but also smack him or her and get away with it,” adds technology expert Carmi Levy.
It can be a scary—and even hellish—world out there for both kids and parents. Instead of keeping our kids safe, sometimes technology can make things worse. I’m thankful that my daughter isn’t interested in Sarahah, but I also realize that I’m not out of the woods yet because there will always be another bully or slam book. For this reason, I’ll keep my dialogue with her open and hope that she’ll continue to come to me whenever her friends encourage her to use the latest “cool” app.