Despite the recent flurry of media attention, anonymous online environments and mobile applications have been around for many years. The social media site Formspring.me arguably introduced the world to the potential consequences of anonymous communications when it launched in 2009. Long before that, though, users routinely created fictitious MySpace profiles or pseudonymous online blogs. Formspring was apparently ahead of its time because it ceased operations in 2013 due to a lack of interest (and funding). Since then, however, being anonymous online has again become fashionable. Apps such as After School and Brighten have joined Yik Yak, Whisper, and Ask.fm in attracting the attention of adolescents interested in underground, or seemingly untraceable, interactions.
Here in the Chippewa Valley, the mobile app Brighten has emerged as the latest fad in surreptitious adolescent communications. Designed as a platform to anonymously “brighten” the lives of friends, this app was conceived as a way to send secret shout-outs to classmates. Of course just as users can say nice things, they can also cast cruelty. Just before Christmas, the Eau Claire Police Department arrested four minors for posting general threats of violence toward Eau Claire area schools via the Brighten app.
I don’t believe most teens are lured to anonymous apps only because they want to engage in lurid activities without concern for accountability. They generally just want to chat with friends without adults always in the room, to share information or thoughts without the risk of acquiring a permanent label.
The Attraction of Anonymous Apps
Despite the recent Eau Claire incident, I don’t believe most teens are lured to anonymous apps such as Brighten only because they want to engage in lurid activities without concern for accountability. They generally just want to chat with friends without adults always in the room, to share information or thoughts without the risk of acquiring a permanent label, or to explore differing perspectives in a way that allows them to start over and try again if necessary. Posting to a Facebook or Instagram profile – even if set to “private” (and therefore restricted only to approved “friends” or “followers”) – doesn’t really allow for any of this.
Anonymous posting can be advantageous for those who are exploring particular beliefs and ideas that they wouldn’t necessarily want to go public with just yet. If I’m trying to figure out who I am politically, religiously, or morally, posting publicly may be too high of a price to pay for this exploration. Maybe I have an interest, identity, or orientation that would be marginalized at my school. Anonymity allows me to probe those parts of myself without being rejected or ostracized. These spaces also enable me to post writings or other artistic creations in a way that can attract constructive criticism without risking long-term damage to my self-esteem. Indeed, some of the greatest works of literature were initially published anonymously.
The Fiction of ‘Anonymity’
Even though these apps all market themselves as anonymous, they really aren’t. Of course, the general public might not know who is posting what, but the administrators of the apps surely do. With After School, users connect via their Facebook profiles. Brighten requires users to authenticate by text message to their phone. And even though Yik Yak doesn’t require users to sign up at all, the app’s developers do know who’s connected to their platform. Every device that connects to the Internet is assigned a unique identification number which can be used by authorities to track down its owner.
These apps could more accurately be described as “confidential” than as anonymous. The companies essentially agree to keep their users’ identities private. But when it comes right down to it, someone can (almost always) track you down and “out” you. Indeed, there are many examples of people who’ve posted problematic content to “anonymous” apps who’ve ultimately been found and held accountable (as illustrated with the local threats on Brighten).
The Antidote for Online Anonymity
Instead of chasing down the latest app or social media site, parents need to teach their children to use all technology tools safely and responsibly. The strategies for smart use stay largely the same across ever-changing platforms. We should regularly remind our kids not to post anything that they think could be perceived as being unkind. They also shouldn’t endorse the hurtful comments of others by liking, sharing, or even just ignoring what is mean. All reputable online environments prohibit harassment and threats, and users who continue to post content that violates community standards should be blocked. Empower teens to do their part as good digital citizens by reporting cyberbullying to the administrators of the app, and remind them that doing so doesn’t reveal them as the person who reported (the app protects the identity of those who make the reports).
It’s also important for youth to know that very little is truly anonymous online. It’s like telling your best friend a secret: they He (or she) may keep it to himself, or he may broadcast it to the whole school. In either case, you are no longer in control of the content. Remind teens not to post anything online they wouldn’t want the whole school (including teachers!) to see. If they cross the line and say something that is cruel (or criminal), they should be prepared to face the consequences. Anonymity isn’t an antonym for accountability.