Sarahah is one of the top mobile apps in the United States, and many parents don't know it exists. In the hands of the wrong person, it's an easy way to bully others or say inappropriate things, because messages are anonymous, so nobody knows who's sending them.
"I got a lot of inappropriate messages," said Autumn Heim, who used to use the app.
Heim, 17, downloaded Sarahah because all of her friends were using it. The messages came quickly.
"There's a couple messages, like bullying. But most of the time it's kinda sexual," said Heim.
In the App Store, Sarahah is listed for users ages 17 and older. It started in Saudi Arabia and came to the United States in the summer of 2017. In just one month, it became the No. 1 downloaded app.
Sarahah was originally designed for the workplace, so employees could anonymously leave constructive feedback for managers without fear of reprisal. But teenagers found it, and have found ways to connect Sarahah's anonymous messages to other popular social media platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat.
"I think that it can be, like, kind of dangerous because I know, other people, they've gotten some pretty mean messages and they're, like, that it rolls off their back. But most of the time it can be kind of damaging," said Heim.
UPMC assistant professor of pediatrics Dr. Ana Radovic has studied the effects of social media on children.
"It can be difficult, especially when you're having these anonymous interactions, to control the types of negative things that might happen," she said.
Radovic said she has found some anonymous feedback -- such as getting advice from others or finding out someone else is feeling the same way that they do -- can be positive for teens. But in order for that to work, parents have to stay involved and invested.
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"Things that can definitely help buffer those types of interactions is families having conversations about what's going on online, and offering consistent support to their kids," said Radovic.
She said there's no one right way to parent a child using social media.
"Some (parents) would try to monitor their teens' behavior on social media by becoming their friend on Instagram or following them on Instagram, or even looking through their phone or asking their friends to report on them, or siblings, so they've tried various ways and some parents have found that they've figured out risky behavior that's happened," said Radovic. "But others have felt like it's a losing game, because their kids will figure out different ways to create new usernames or use apps that they haven't heard of. So I think it's really important for parents to be health literate."
Part of that means not only being aware of what apps are out there, but teaching teenagers how to be responsible online as an adult.
Radovic suggests using comments on online news articles as examples to model behavior, even if it's showing that the mature choice is to stop reading and not get involved in the conversation.
Heim said she has those conversations with her mother, and has deleted her Sarahah account. She has a message for other teenagers about not letting the anonymous messages bother them.
"I think they should just let it go because there are already so many great things about them, then why should they just believe one message sent to them anonymously? They couldn't even say it to your face," Heim said.
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