Written by Brooks Ordich
It’s 10 p.m., and you’re lying in bed, fifteen episodes into a new binge on Netflix. You’re watching and waiting. Waiting on a response to come through on the latest app you’ve downloaded. Hoping that someone has an answer to the question you asked only hours before. “What do you think of me?” The words burn into your brain, illuminated on a six-inch screen you refresh over and over until…. an update. A response! You open it excitedly, unsure of what you’ll find, yet hopeful for candid advice from a family member or friend. “What do you think of me?” You read your first reply and your heart sinks. There, underneath your question, read the words “I hate you. Honestly, I think everyone else does too.” You feel your stomach churn and the familiar lump in your throat returns. The worst part? All the replies on this app are anonymous.
This is a scenario that plays out daily, and while people have been able to hide behind the veil of anonymity for a while now with the release of a new app called “Sarahah”, the potential for nasty messages and cyber bullying has increased and is setting a terrifying precedent.
“it can be both…I’ve mostly seen positive feedback…and [it has] boosted my self-esteem. Also, it lets those who are too shy speak up without being embarrassed. “
Sarahah (meaning honesty in Arabic), was released on June 13th, 2017, and much to the pleasure of its creator, Saudi programmer Zain Al-abidin Tdawfiq, it quickly became one of the top free apps on the market generating hundreds of millions of views in less than a months’ time. Tawfiq created the app as a way for users to receive constructive feedback, and the website suggests that it should “let your friends be honest with you”. It seems that not only has Tawfiq created a positive app with good intentions, but the market has responded overwhelmingly well making Sarahah a smash hit. But is Sarahah really the benevolent force of good it’s advertised as? Critics are saying no.
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing families with trustworthy information, has called Sarahah an “anonymous evaluation tool, ready-made for cyberbullying.” Other internet watchdog groups, including the Canadian Centre for Child Protection state that “Sarahah has quickly turned into a platform for cyberbullying and harassment.“ It certainly seems to be receiving a good amount of pushback and while reaching the top of the app store markets, an influx of poor 1-star ratings has steadily been increasing. I’d like to believe this is a sign of people wising up to the apps potential for cyber bullying, but to better understand the public mindset I decided to interview potential users.
Of the populace that had heard of the app, many had not actively used it themselves. Though nearly all interviewed were concerned with the potential for bullying. One interviewee admitted that while he was concerned with bullying “in general” he was not concerned for himself. There were some who felt strongly negative towards the app:
One college student when asked if Sarahah was more positive or negative responded:
“I believe that the app has more of a negative impact than good. I can hardly think of an example of a benefit, but I can think of plenty of negatives…I am concerned that Sarahah has potential for cyberbullying as anonymity introduces a barrier between actions and consequences…I would teach my younger siblings that if they believe something enough to state it in a public forum, they should put their name behind it. “
Another girl responded similarly, saying “I feel the concept of the app is enforcing that people shouldn’t be straightforward [unless doing so] without accepting responsibility or consequences for what they have to say.”
While the results of the interviews were mostly negative, there were a few that seemed to enjoy the app. One girl interviewed said that while the potential for negative and positive impacts on life exist “it can be both…I’ve mostly seen positive feedback…and [it has] boosted my self-esteem. Also, it lets those who are too shy speak up without being embarrassed. “
While it is true that negative feedback often exists to the detriment of progress, we owe it to ourselves to view things objectively. Cyberbullying is by no means a new topic. In fact, a large population of teens and young adults admit that they have been a victim. In 2016 the Cyber Bullying research center released a study citing that 33.8 % of middle school and high school students surveyed admitted to being cyber bullied in their lifetime. Further studies conducted found that 96% of time spent using technology, comes from cellphone use and 90% of that time is using apps. This makes apps such as Sarahah prime real estate for cruel messages and harassment. Cyberbullying is a well-documented occurrence with links to depression and suicide. In a world that is already struggling to monitor young adults online and keep them safe, anonymous messaging apps such as Sarahah could become a dangerous new trend.
What can we do?
Parents and guardians should be cautious. Teens and young adults should be wise. Finding constructive advice should not require an anonymous app. Friends and family should lend helpful advice because they care and veil of anonymity opens the door to people who find it entertaining to make others feel bad about themselves. Those that are looking for honest criticism for self-improvement, may also be the most vulnerable individuals with already lowered self-esteem. With the popularity of the app taken into account, it seems people are just looking for a sort of candidness, however, communicating with each other face to face can go a long way to establishing those honest connections we are looking for though apps.