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New app “Sarahah” raises bullying concerns

November 17, 2017

Social media’s sweeping popularity among students is nothing new. Every day, millions of young people peruse long-prominent social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

But in recent months, a new social media platform has taken root among high school students: Sarahah.

Sarahah’s appeal lies in its anonymity. The app allows users to set up accounts and maintain an inbox that other users leave messages in, completely anonymous. In fact, the name of the app is an Arabic word meaning “frankness” or “honesty,” reflecting its conduciveness to candid feedback.

But there are growing concerns that this encouragement of complete sincerity could lead to situations involving harassment and bullying. In fact, some students have already seen these problems erupt through the app.

Lilly Constantinides doesn’t use the app herself, but she oftentimes sees her friends talking about it on their Snapchat stories and sharing the messages that are left in their inboxes.

“I know around 100 people that use it,” Constantinides said. “I see people saying things that are extremely violent or wrong.”

I know around 100 people that use it. I see people saying things that are extremely violent or wrong.”

— Lilly Constantinides

Constantinides said one of her close friends was once the recipient of a degrading comment, which almost led to a heated confrontation.

“[My friend] was really upset about it and took it really harshly,” she said.

While Constantinides’ friend thankfully avoided a real-life conflict, other students have seen issues over Sarahah cause physical altercations.

Isaiah Brisseaux, sophomore, said he knows someone who left rude messages in another person’s inbox. The recipient found out who sent the message and confronted him. This led to an argument, which wound up evolving into a physical fight.

“On Sarahah, people call each other names, make fun of them for their size and make a lot of rude comments that really shouldn’t be made,” Brisseaux said.

Principal Dr. Greg Mathison said he has often had to intervene in social media-related issues in the past and has been involved in the discipline process of such issues.

“A lot of the time, people are online and they will say things to someone they would never say to their face because they can just hide behind a Snapchat account, or an Instagram account, or whatever students are using at the time,” Dr. Mathison said. “If you’re not going to say it to their face, you shouldn’t say it over social media.”

A lot of the time, people are online and they will say things to someone they would never say to their face because they can just hide behind a Snapchat account, or an Instagram account, or whatever students are using at the time.”

— Greg Mathison

Dr. Mathison said a lot of the problems he’s seen also have come from comments that have been misinterpreted due to social media’s communication barrier.

“Sometimes those things are taken out of context, but it’s hard to understand someone’s context when you don’t have inflection, body language or a relationship, and it’s just written,” he said. “We’ve also had people who have created fake accounts and said things about other people and they feel justified in doing that, and it’s completely wrong to do something like that.”

Dr. Mathison said he thinks students can nevertheless use similar anonymous social media apps to add something positive to the lives of others, and he encourages them to do so.

“There are people that do random acts of kindness,” he said. “You could use [anonymous apps] to build someone up that you know. They won’t just think, ‘oh that’s so-and-so trying to be nice.’ You could really build others up.”

He specifically pointed to another popular app, TBH. This app allows users to anonymously create polls about students within their school. Dr. Mathison said he has seen his own daughter, a middle schooler, use this app with her friends to uplift each other.

Rebecca Dohrman, associate professor of communication at Maryville University, said she agrees that there is potential for both negative and positive reinforcement in social media, but that she has trouble thinking of positives for the apps that enable anonymity.

“I think with all technology there’s potential for positivity or potential for negativity,” Dohrman said. “The thing about these anonymous ones is that it’s difficult for me to think of a positive, other than just allowing people to increase their communication. I can’t think of any positives they could be used for that another social media site could not do.”

Dohrman said her advice to students using apps like Sarahah is to remember the potential consequences before you send something negative to another person.

“People should take great care when they’re posting to make sure they’re advancing conversation in a positive direction instead of devolving it into a negative direction, because I think, like so many social media tools, we’re all contributing to the culture on that tool, so when we’re contributing positive things it encourages other people to see that as the norm, and when we post negative things it has the opposite effect,” she said.

Overall, Dohrman sees Sarahah and other social media platforms as an evolution of past modes of communication among the youth. While the platform may change, a lot of the types socializing that occur remains the same.

“I think social media has become this space where teenagers work through their identities, and if you think about it 20 or 25 years ago, it might have been the mall,” she said. “[It’s a place] where teenagers would go to have these performances of their identities, and kind of work through different identities, and now I think it’s the same thing on social media.”

As for whether this is a good or a bad thing, Dohrman said she does not think there’s a clear-cut answer. It’s just a natural progression.

“I wouldn’t say it’s good or bad, but it’s the new site where these things are happening,” she said.

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