Meet the Anonymous Apps That Are Bringing Cyberbullying to Your Teen's School

anonymous appsAnonymous apps like Whisper, Secret, YikYak and BackChat (just to name a few) have been making headlines recently as the future of social media sharing. Many of their users originally seemed to be coming straight from Silicon Valley, but the anonymous, free-flowing, and “honest” environments are reaching a different audience: over-shared, image-obsessed teens, who may just have a cyberbullying edge.

It seems that these apps are popular with teens because their generation has become Facebook-fried. In the past few years, the explosion of social media apps has forced users to create an online identity with an e-mail address, a user name, and a picture constantly attached. If they had a dollar for every time they heard that colleges and future employers would be looking at their social media profiles, they could buy WhatsApp (another messaging app which recently sold to Facebook for $19 billion). The freedom from your profile and a space to really express your deepest darkest secrets and fears to an open and honest community is a treasured place among a generation constantly under surveillance. But unfortunately, it appears that the freedom provided by these apps also comes with a heavy dose of cyberbullying.

Some of these apps seem to encourage more of a toxic online atmosphere than others. Whisper and Secret are both fairly innocuous and still cashing in on the anonymous market. The format, where users share personal secrets (rather than attacks on others, usually) seems to attract an older audience that’s still nostalgic for the heyday of PostSecret, or simply interested in sharing tech rumors from the heart of Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, there is just as much a market for blame-free aggression as there is for anonymous self-expression. Many adults are familiar with, and terrified by, the Latvia-based website Ask.fm, which was named an influence in nine teen suicides in 2013 alone (for the unfamiliar, check out the TeenBeing post for an introduction). The site, which allows users to anonymously ask questions, still attaches the receivers to a profile where all of their answers can be seen. Similar apps, like the California teen-created BackChat, allow users to send, but not receive, messages anonymously. This format creates a platform for teens to contact (and ridicule and harass, if they so choose) their peers without their names and reputations on the line.

YikYak, an app that’s been making headlines recently for similar reasons, has been surging through schools, leaving only destruction in its wake. Will Haskel, a student at Staples High School in Westport, CT, recounted the devastation in an article for The Cut, describing the scene at a neighboring school as “pandemonium.” YikYak gives the anonymous conversation format new life by concentrating it all into one loud, public place. Instead of just a (potentially cruel) dialogue, this app allows every user in a 1.5-mile radius to communicate anonymously, and compiles their shouts into one ever-refreshing feed. In a community filled with teenagers, this format is a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, YikYak creators, who intended for the app to be used on college campuses, took notice of their growing reputation as a hotbed for teenage cruelty and are reportedly stepping in. The same technology which allows users to join a location-based community within the app can also be used to keep them out. This technique, called geo-fencing, is now being used by YikYak to lock over 130,000 schools out of the app.

So what can we offer to teens whose phones have sowed a seed of doubt in their social lives? It’s hard to tell a teen not to be affected by what they’ve seen, and equally hard to deny them the right to privacy, freedom, or even anonymity. But what teens do need to recognize is that anonymous isn’t the same as blameless, and cruelty in the name of honesty or self-expression still hurts just as much. Let’s teach our teens to be proud of their thoughts and take responsibility for their words. Teen writers like Will Haskel and positive twitter-creators like Kevin Curwick and Jeremiah Anthony are now internet-famous for their words. The teens who posted jabs at their peers on YikYak? They’re still just cyberbullies.

 

For more information on cyberbullying, have your teen read “Which One of Them Is The Cyberbully?” from the May 2014 issue of Choices. Subscribe to Choices to see our upcoming story on the Big Business of cyberbullying apps as soon as it hits the digital newsstands next Fall. For more resources, please visit the Cyberbullying Research Center’s website.