Growing Up Online: The Pros and Cons of Anonymous Social Media

Keeping secrets is part of growing up. Deciding what you’ll tell people about yourself—and others—is one way children develop an understanding of privacy and trust.
With Facebook and other forms of public social media, nothing is secret. Even young children now know that comments or photos become part of a person’s “permanent record.” And that’s one reason many teens are switching to anonymous apps with names like Whisper, Secret, Yik Yak, Street Chat, and FessApp.
With anonymous apps, teens can let off steam without worrying about repercussions. They confess crushes and mistakes, make edgy jokes, laugh over embarrassing moments, and divulge sensitive information. Some people also feel free to open up about serious problems—abusive relationships, conflicts with friends and family, concerns about mental and physical health, and even self-destructive behaviors such as anorexia, cutting, and suicidal thoughts.
That kind of communication is very different from more public forms of social media where everyone puts their best foot forward all the time. Living in a glass house can be boring, exhausting, and even lonely because no one is spontaneous or even honest. At their best, anonymous apps are an opportunity for young people to explore the edges of who they are and find out that their problems are not unique.
Of course, anonymity also has a well-documented dark side. Many people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do when they can’t be held accountable. On anonymous sites, people slander and threaten other people. They spread cruel rumors and solicit sex. Given the potential for serious problems, it’s easy for parents to overreact.
That won’t help. Without understanding the allure of anonymous social media, parents can’t set effective limits. Although every anonymous app is a little different, parents quickly gain insight into the appeal of no-name social media by browsing whisper.sh, a site where “whispers” are shared, classified, rated, and assembled into lists. Even a cursory look reveals whispers that are witty and confessional, harmless fun, and seriously disturbing. Taken together, they provide a remarkable window into the anxieties, preoccupations, embarrassments, and fears of other people; a collage that’s compelling for teens trying to figure out how they fit into the world.
Armed with a basic understanding of anonymous social media, parents are in a better position to talk to teens. Here are questions worth asking:

What apps are you using?

Find out what apps your child has installed. Just as important, find out what apps your child’s friends are using. Many kids feel they need to have a particular app simply to keep track of what’s being said by others.

How are apps being used?

Some teens use anonymous apps wisely—posting funny messages or even supporting people who seem to be having a tough time. Other kids are seduced by the popularity contest. In order to get more “likes,” they push the envelope with posts that are increasingly outrageous, sexual, or cruel. Children need to hear from you that you expect them to live up to their values in private as well as public settings.

What’s the appeal of anonymity?

Help your child think through the pros and cons of anonymity. How does it influence what people post? Be sure your child understands that privacy policies for websites often change. Even though anonymity is likely with these apps, it’s never guaranteed. Also, police can and do track down people who break the law by making threats or posting sexual photos of minors.

What’s the role of GPS?

Many popular anonymous apps depend upon the location service built into every smartphone. YikYak, for example, was designed by college students so people on the same campus could share random messages. In high schools, the program has been used for bullying, bashing teachers, and even bomb threats. Yik Yak erected “geofences” that are supposed to make the program off limits for many public schools but, of course, that doesn’t stop students from accessing the program in other settings. If sites like this are causing problems at your child’s school, consider disabling the GPS feature on the phone.

Which sites should be off-limits?

Make it clear that you don’t want your child to use “random chat apps” such as Omegle, Chatrando, and Tiny Chat. These are adult apps which make it all too easy for teens to connect with strangers. You may also want to steer your child away from sites that have developed a reputation for bullying. Ask.fm, for example, is notorious for cruel questions such as “Why are you fat?” or even “Why don’t you kill yourself?”
Some people are trying to create anonymous social networks that bring out the best in people. Let (let.com) is an app that encourages people to award stars to each other. It claims to have zero tolerance for bad behavior. Outpour (outpour.io) allows users to share positive comments they might be too shy to make in person. Their motto: “Go find the beauty in people and tell them.”
Even sites that try to monitor and remove offensive posts won’t be successful all the time, so teens who use anonymous apps are likely to encounter material that is confusing or even upsetting. Opening up candid conversations about these apps defuses their power. Teens may not tell their parents everything, but they should have confidence that, when they are burdened by a secret, the best people to confide in are still Mom and Dad.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.

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