Sarahah and tbh: inside the teenage obsession with anonymous apps

You’re ugly. Stop being a slut.

These are just some of the messages 18-year-old Kiara Padilla received after downloading the friend-feedback app Sarahah. Originally intended as a tool that would allow employees to give anonymous feedback to their bosses, Sarahah became the most downloaded free app in the App Store in July after teenagers around the world began using it. “I downloaded it because everyone else around me was,” explains Kiara, “and being the slightly self-centred teen I am, I wanted people to leave comments on what they thought about me.”

Sarahah is simple. Once downloaded, you share the link to your profile with friends, who can then leave you anonymous comments. Unlike previous anonymous apps, such as ask.fm or Curious Cat, users are unable to reply to messages. Because of this, teenagers immediately took to screenshotting their Sarahah comments and posting them on the picture-messaging app Snapchat, so that they could show off compliments they received or retaliate to insults.

“It was nice at first but of course there are always gonna be mean people, which really isn't the app’s fault,” says Kiara, who brushes off the messages she received as “typical mean girl comments”. Although she temporarily deleted the app, she recently re-downloaded it. Why?

Sarahah isn’t new – its predecessors include Facemash, HotOrNot, FitSort, Ask.fm, Curious Cat, Whisper, and Yik Yak – and despite the fact nearly all of these have been embroiled in cyberbullying and suicide scandals, each iteration has become immensely popular. “The drama created by anonymity helps to make the apps appealing,” explains cyberpsychologist Dr Dawn Branley, who tweets @thecyberpsyche. “But does this short-term entertainment come at the price of potential long-term distress?”

The App Store reviews of Sarahah certainly paint this picture. The app now has a 2.5 star rating, made up of comments such as “I’m getting suicidal thoughts from this app” and “my friend who is suicidal is getting messages like why are u still alive kill urself already.” One user writes of being called fat and ugly and being told to die, but their only complaint is they wish the app wasn’t anonymous. “Please let us know who said things about us!!” reads the three-star review.

Dr Branley explains that some individuals are more at risk from anonymous apps than others, though believes that “generally, there is no enjoyment to be had in reading things that no-one would say to your face”. And it’s true that despite the negative reviews, many teens do seem unfazed by the abuse they receive on these anonymous apps.

“Lots of hate mail has come through my Sarahah inbox,” says Tyler Pareja, an 18-year-old who downloaded the app a month ago. “People talked about my appearance but mostly about my personal life. Like stuff I would tell my friends.” Despite the personal nature of the abuse, Tyler explains it didn’t bother him, and he only deleted the app because he’d rather not see the comments. “It doesn't affect me at all honestly, I know better than to care what people say behind an anonymous account online.” It could be argued that these anonymous comments are now an established and expected part of teenage life.

Tyler himself would tease his friends on the app, though he’d always let them know it was him to avoid any hurt feelings. Yet Dr Branley explains that comments that may seem fun offline – where we can, for example, see if someone is laughing with us, versus at us – can be more distressing on the internet. “The online world makes it easier to misinterpret a joke or tongue in cheek comment as a serious criticism,” she says. “This has the potential to be detrimental to self-esteem, confidence and psychological well-being.” One mother has already spoken to the press about her daughter being bullied on Sarahah, while a school in Dublin warned parents about the app.

Online honesty has a long history, and despite the fact Sarahah is already falling out of favour, many more apps are waiting to take its place. Earlier this month, a tool called “tbh” (to be honest) shot up to the top spot in the App Store. The anonymous app is currently only available in a handful of the United States, but its twist is bigger than its reach.

“It’s a great mood booster,” says Alex Gatus, a 17-year-old from Los Angeles. “It’s cool seeing what people think of me in comparison to others.”

Tbh, which describes itself as “the only anonymous app with positive vibes”, doesn’t allow users to write their own messages. Instead, teenagers are given yearbook-style comments such as “Hotter than the sun” or “Could become a poet”, and they vote which of four randomly-selected friends best fits the statement. Alex has been described as having the “Best tweets” and as “Most likely to get into Harvard”.

“Some of it has honestly been nerve-wracking because I’ve also seen things like ‘I have a confession for you’ or ‘Wish they’d ask me to Homecoming’,” he says. Alex feels happy when he uses the app and also enjoys giving compliments to others. Could this be the end of toxic anonymous app culture?

“It is likely that this will be short-lived as the app lacks the controversy and drama of its less moderated counterparts,” speculates Dr Branley. Some users already dislike tbh. Tiffany Bamford, a 17-year-old who downloaded it last week, says the app became “frustrating”.

“At first I loved it – it felt good to see my classmates voting for me, and it was fun to vote for someone,” she explains. However, Tiffany became annoyed when she realised the app was becoming the sole source of validation for younger students in particular. “They try to do whatever the cool thing is and invest themselves into that. The tbh app would be great for older humans who already know it’s all in good fun and are already stable in knowing who they are,” she says. 

Tbh was perhaps a much-needed palate cleanser after a harsh summer of Sarahah. Yet not all comments recieved on Sarahah are insulting, and many teens brush off abuse to focus on the nice or flirtatious messages they receive. Such apps also allow these teenagers to perform their popularity, and Tyler believes some girls send themselves compliments to screenshot so they can look more attractive. This app – and its other iterations – therefore perform multiple roles in teenage social life. Because of this, although Sarahah and tbh will soon fall out of favour, the teen obsession with anonymity never will.