8 September 2021

Secret telling apps: Is anonymity liberating or a danger to young people?

While parents, teachers and regulatory bodies focus on the safety of social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, there’s a host of new, trendy anonymous apps stealing young people’s attention, and they’re going under the radar.

A photograph of a school classroom. Student looks at her phone.
Getty Images, skynesher

*Trigger warning: mention of suicide and derrogatory language*

Dr Ysabel Gerrard is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society in the Department of Sociological Studies. Her research focuses on the impact of social media on young people, and with a grant from The British Academy, she’s leading an investigation into the power of anonymity on a trendy, new type of social media; secret-telling apps. 

Anonymous apps have grown in popularity over the past decade, especially among the youth demographic. There are dozens to choose from, but one common feature is that you can ‘vent, confess and share secrets with strangers while going incognito’ (New York Magazine, 2014.)

“I’ve been researching digital media since I was an undergraduate, and over the last few years I’ve realised that there is a real lack of academic research on secret telling apps. There doesn’t seem to be any knowledge of how young people use these apps, despite their immense popularity” said Dr Gerrard. 

“In the press, secret telling apps are often talked about in a negative way, but I wanted to understand how the kids using them actually feel and to help give them a voice. From what I can see, nobody has ever asked them.” 

After receiving a British Academy Small Grant, Dr Gerrard began the investigation in 2019, speaking directly to young people in schools and youth settings to understand how they are using secret-telling apps, how worried we should be about that, and to what extent the apps are protecting young people. 

In a series of interviews and workshops, Dr Gerrard talked with young people aged 13 to 19 in schools and sixth forms across the country. What she found was an alarming reality. 

A place for confessions or cut-throat opinions?

In one sixth form, students had set up a secret-telling account named after their school using a platform called Tellonym, so they could get ‘anonymous and honest feedback from everyone who is important to you’ (Tellonym.me). 

“The students had set it up as a confessional page, where they sent anonymous opinions or gossip about other students at the sixth form. The messages were then cross-posted to Instagram for everyone to see. At the time, I thought it was really unique for this sixth form, but then every school I went into after that had their own version. 

“I asked everyone to self identify their gender, and those who identified as young women told stories of how secret telling apps had affected how they feel about their bodies.”

In one school, Dr Gerrard recalls a secret-telling app that was used to rate every girl in the school as ‘fit’ or a ‘dog’, with detailed information about why that decision was made. 

“I met one girl who used to wear her hair in gorgeous braids and wear lots of different colours. She’d even match her braids to her outfit, but she became so afraid of someone taking a picture and criticising her on the app that she now doesn’t braid her hair for school and all her clothes are dark and baggy.

“All the girls were saying so many of the same things, that it made them not want to highlight any part of their body because they don’t want anyone to take a picture and post it on the secret telling app to make them feel uncomfortable. But talking to the boys, I would say I heard more stories of people being told to kill themselves.” 

The fear of missing out

Despite the detrimental impact of these apps for some students, Dr Gerrard found that young people still want to keep using them. Asking young people if they’d feel happier in a world where there were no secret-telling apps, Dr Gerrard found there was a synonymous no. 

“It’s a real contradiction, but it’s evidence that nothing is simple. Young people are incredibly trend-driven and want to do what their friends are doing. We often talk about FOMO (fear of missing out), but you forget how real that is when you’re a kid.”

And evidence shows that there are real positives to being able to speak anonymously online. “I’ve spoken to so many kids who have said it’s the only place they’ve been able to talk about their mental health, or their sexuality. 

“There was a young guy who said he had used the apps to ask how to come out to his parents, so they can be really helpful for people who feel they can’t talk honestly to the people around them.”

I’ve spoken to so many kids who have said it’s the only place they’ve been able to talk about their mental health, or their sexuality.”

Regulation of secret telling apps

So how can we ensure that young people are protected without removing platforms that can provide much needed support? 

“Reading the UK Government’s Online Harms white paper, secret telling apps just aren’t present. They talk about Facebook and Instagram and YouTube, but actually at the height of their popularity, secret-telling apps can have more users than the big players. They are completely missing the reality of it.”

“But it gets complicated, because the platforms themselves are not simply either good or bad, so they shouldn’t be banned or heavily regulated just because some people have bad experiences on them,” said Dr Gerrard, “but they’re also not that great all the time so there shouldn’t just be a blind spot where they’re not monitored.” 

The issue, Dr Gerrard states, is that secret telling apps are often built by very small teams who don’t fully understand their potential. The apps often suddenly blow up in popularity until the point that they become dangerous, and are then typically removed by app stores like Google Play. Once a secret-telling app has collapsed, a new one will pop up and take its place. 

“It’s a real cat and mouse game to keep chasing them but it isn’t entirely the companies’ fault. It’s that there is a blind spot in regulation where we don’t even talk about these social apps that just go from zero to hero overnight. So what do you do?”

The platforms themselves are not simply either good or bad, so they shouldn’t be banned or heavily regulated just because some people have bad experiences with them.”

Tighter regulations often mean that smaller businesses can’t grow, but loose regulation can allow apps to slip through the cracks and cause real problems for people. The UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, recently suggested a tiered approach to regulating apps according to their features (e.g., anonymity), rather than the size of an app or company. 

“It’s one of the most promising solutions,” Dr Gerrard added, “but at the same time there’s risks to that as well because this kind of regulation risks demonising certain features, like anonymity. 

“And research shows us that anonymity isn’t intrinsically bad. It has facilitated so many great things for so many people, so I’d worry that if you had tighter regulations for apps that allow it, you’d risk businesses moving away from anonymity because there are too many hoops to jump through. So that’s the really hard thing about this.

“Ultimately, in the fight to protect children, somebody somewhere is going to be stifled and I think we just have to weigh up who’s going to benefit vs who is going to be harmed and pick the better one, but also crucially, not be afraid to reverse the decision if it doesn’t work.”

In the fight to protect children, somebody somewhere is going to be stifled and I think we just have to weigh up who’s going to benefit vs who is going to be harmed.”

Read Dr Ysabel Gerrard’s article ‘Social apps that go suddenly viral put kids at risk’ on Wired.com

Find out more about Dr Ysabel Gerrard and her work at the University of Sheffield

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