While reading messages he received on the anonymous app Sarahah, YouTuber Lonnie Randall notes “it’s kind of like an ego-destroying hate machine.”
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection and police departments across several U.S. states and in New Zealand are warning parents about Sarahah, an app that lets users send messages to each other anonymously.
Sue Scheff, a cyber-safety expert and author based in Florida, said the anonymity feature is what can enable online harassment among children and teenagers.
“They’re able to speak without looking at people face-to-face, which makes it easier for them to judge and criticize without having to see the reaction,” Scheff told Global News.
Sarahah, which means “frankness” or “honesty” in Arabic, was developed in Saudi Arabia. It’s been available for download in Canada since the spring. Since then, the app has soared in popularity, with hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
Created for the workplace
Sarahah CEO Zain al-Abdin Tawfiq initially created the app for use in a workplace setting.
On its website, Sarahaha is described as a tool for users to discover their strengths and weaknesses by “receiving honest feedback from employees and friends in a private manner.”
In practice, however, Sarahah has been gaining traction among youth. Although the app store says users must be at least 17 years old, many are younger and therefore more vulnerable to bullying.
Scheff, who was cyberbullied as an adult, said vicious comments can emotionally devastate the victim.
“Words hurt. It’s just that simple,” she said.
She counsels parents to have an ongoing conversation with their children about their cyber life.
“There’s always going to be an app,” Scheff said. “It’s not the app — it’s our social behaviour. It’s our parenting.”
Cracking down on cyberbullying in anonymous messaging apps is no easy feat, but leaving users to comment freely without constraints can end up backfiring.
READ MORE: Yik Yak app raising concerns at high schools
Yik Yak learned this lesson. The app, which allowed users to “upvote” or “downvote” anonymous posts, was once a hit among university students. Some some users reported receiving threats, racist posts and bullying. Yik Yak shut down in May.
“One of the downfalls was basically this complete lack of control over content,” explains University of Chicago computer science professor Ben Zhao.
Safeguards against cyberbullying
The apps that last are the ones that offer safeguards to protect users’ privacy and security.
As a prime example, Zhao points to Whisper, where users post photos and videos anonymously.
Zhao and his research team studied the app’s users and published a report in 2014.
According to Zhao, Whisper invests a lot of time, using both human resources and automated software, to detect and stamp out bullying.
Zhao suggested other apps such as Sarahah could try creating a more professional setting by verifying users and limiting access to authenticated companies — but those limits would come at a price.
“That would remove a lot of the bullying component, but at the same time I think it would really reduce the popularity of the app,” Zhao said.
Changing social behaviour
Global News reached out to Sarahah for comment, but Tawfiq declined an interview.
He told the BBC in August that Sarahah does have “features such as blocking and filtering and many other techniques” in place to prevent online harassment.
Sarahah has already received several complaints about cyberbullying from users on Twitter and Facebook, but experts point out the issue of online harassment is not limited to any one channel or platform.
Scheff said there will always be another new app where cyberbullying can emerge.
Instead of targeting specific apps, she encourages parents to focus on changing their children’s social-media behaviour.
“Empathy and kindness starts offline, and we need to bring it online,” Scheff said.