Good Digital Parenting
Nov. 15, 2017

Sarahah – Intention vs Reality

Events Intern, Family Online Safety Institute

October was National Bullying Prevention Month.  Bullying occurs not only in person, but also online.  Cyberbullying can happen on any app or online platform; anonymous apps, in particular, have become more popular with teens, and thus with cyberbullies.  Sarahah is an anonymous app that became popular this past summer and currently has about 95 million registered users, according to Business Insider.  Zain al-Abdin Tawfiq created this app in Saudi Arabia with the intention of giving employees an anonymous way to give feedback to their managers and colleagues.  As this app increased in popularity worldwide, its main users are no longer adult employees, but teenagers using the app to give feedback to their friends.

The name Sarahah means “honesty” in Arabic; unfortunately the anonymity of this app has opened the door for cyber bullies to post anything without repercussions.  DoSomething reports that 70% of kids from ages 12 to 17 say they have seen cyber bullying happen.  This study does not just focus on Sarahah, but all social media platforms.  Sarahah is not the first anonymous app to incur cyberbullying.  Some other apps include Ask.fm, Whisper, Yik Yak, and many others.  Dr. Dawn Branley, a cyperpsychologist, explains that “’[t]he drama created by anonymity helps to make the apps appealing.’”  Dr. Branley interviewed an 18-year-old girl who downloaded the app, and she explained that she downloaded it because everyone else around her had it, and as a “slightly self – centered teen”, she wanted to know what other people thought of her.  The comments she received started off nice, but then turned to typical “mean girl comments”.  Tawfiq is working to decrease cyberbullying on the app by including a reminder to “leave a constructive message :)” in hopes that it will encourage positive messages.  Tawfiq also has added a feature that filters keywords and does not allow certain messages to be sent.

Here is how the app works: after a person downloads the app and creates an account, they then can share a hyperlink to their account.  Users can post this link on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, etc.  One main way that Sarahah is different from other anonymous apps, is that users can not reply to a message that someone sends them.  As a result, people may repost the “constructive message” on other social media sites to respond, which markets the app and creates further discussion about the comment and/or the person.  The Sarahah hyperlinks lead to their web-based version of this site where people can post if they do not have the app. 

Recently, security flaws have been found on the web-based site.  Scott Helme, a security researcher, found many flaws in the Sarahah web application that he believes hackers would be able to find easily.  Helme stated that Sarahah’s cross-site request forgery (CSRF) is trivial and easy to hack.  This can lead to privacy and security concerns for its users.  Sarahah has been notified of these issues, and stated that they are working on it, though they have not responded quickly to any of these claims.

The app is classified as "17+" in the Apple store, but there is no mechanism to check a downloaders age, so it is easy to download it regardless of age.  Sarahah is currently #7 in the Social Networking section of the App Store.  Although it came out over the summer, parents still need to be aware of this app and learn more about how their children are using it.  If children are spending too much time on it, it may be a good idea for parents to limit their use, especially for children younger than 17.

Many users and critics do not recommend this app because of the bullying and insecurity aspects of it, but it already has a large following.  It is critical for parents to sit down and talk with their children about the dangers of this app, as well as internet use in general, to confirm that their children are being safe online.  It is also important for parents to discuss cyberbullying with their children and make sure kids feel safe and comfortable at home and at school.  For more tips on how to talk and monitor to your children’s online use, check out FOSI’s 7 Steps to Good Digital Parenting.