Are Anonymous Apps Safe for Teens? Mother Says Daughter's Life Ruined by Unknown Cyber Bullies
Some say the lack of accountability on anonymous apps make them breeding grounds for insults.
Margaret first realized something might be wrong with her daughter when the Chicago teen stopped sleeping this fall.
“She was mostly up all night and then her grades started to drop,” Margaret said. “Then she stopped eating.”
Another clue came in the form of a personality shift when the normally generous and considerate 14-year-old girl started talking back, her mother said.
“Because she couldn’t do anything, I guess, she would take it out on me,” said Margaret, who asked InsideEdition.com not to use her real name. “She was hurt emotionally.”
Margaret’s daughter was in the midst of a crisis. The newly minted high schooler was being barraged with threats from other kids who believed she'd told administrators they were dabbling in drugs.
But even after school, Margaret’s daughter wasn’t safe from the torment because most of the threats were made online.
“She was getting messages that she was the one who told the adults,” Margaret said. “Somebody sent her a message on Facebook … then she got messages on Snapchat, then through the anonymous apps.
“After that it just kind of exploded.”
The abuse Margaret says her daughter suffered is the latest example of what critics say are the pitfalls of apps that encourage anonymous communication between teens.
The lack of accountability afforded to those who use sites like Sarahah and After School make them breeding grounds for insults, according to law enforcement authorities, school administrators and anti-bullying advocates who spoke to InsideEdition.com.
“The kids are going to them for a thrill, to get something negative on someone,” said Anna Mendez, the executive director of the National Association of People Against Bullying.
Mendez’s 16-year-old son, Daniel, took his own life in 2009.
Daniel Mendez was a well-rounded kid who enjoyed the outdoors, sports and lifting others up. He loved rock climbing, skateboarding, swimming, fishing, camping and football. He was a devout Catholic and was known as the peacemaker of his friends.
And he had suffered for years at the hands of bullies.
“It got a lot worse in middle school when he decided to report the bullying,” his sister Victoria Mendez, who was 12 when he passed, said. “He continued to get bullied throughout high school until he died.”
Three years after her son’s death, Mendez founded the National Association of People Against Bullying, devoting her life to preventing other children from suffering the way her son did.
In her work, Mendez has seen a concerning increase in the reports of bullying and harassment through online apps, especially those that allow anonymity.
“If you could do things and it would never be tied to you, well, there’s a lot more you feel free to do,” Mendez said. “The complaints that our organization have received have quadrupled in the last year, and a larger and larger share of complaints have some sort of aspect of [involving] an anonymous app.”
Oftentimes, parents aren’t aware their children are using the apps until they fall victims themselves.
“Parents aren’t linking the problem with these anonymous apps—they’re calling us saying ‘my child is suicidal, I don’t know what to do,” Mendez said. “We ask ‘who’s doing this?’ [They say] ‘Well it’s anonymous.’”
After realizing the problems her daughter was facing weren’t going to go away on their own, Margaret tried putting the teen in therapy.
It didn’t work, because the messages kept coming.
“She used to use my aunt’s cell before,” Margaret said. “Then my aunt started getting messages, also.”
Anonymity also made it easier for others to impersonate the teenager in the continued effort to make her life miserable.
“They supposedly said that she sent a video to a classmate of hers late at night,” Margaret said. “I asked my daughter and she said no, she didn’t send anything.”
School administrators were able to do very little to help the situation, Margaret said.
The response had become familiar to the mother, who said her pleas to the school, police—and even to one of the apps allegedly used against her daughter—for help fell on deaf ears.
“Even though I showed the messages … to police … they said they couldn’t trace it,” Margaret said. “The police, I thought they would help; they said to let the [school] administrators know. I contacted Sarahah by email, but there is no direct number to call.”
Margaret said she received an email back regarding her ticket. And then she received an email about creating an account with the app herself, she said.
Sarahah did not respond to InsideEdition.com's request for comment.
Margaret felt she had exhausted her options.
“I didn’t know where to turn to,” she said.
The protections afforded to users of anonymous apps that make it easier to bully also make it that much more difficult for school or law enforcement officials to take action against such behavior.
Mark Sale, the principal at Swain County High School in rural North Carolina, recalled the issues that arose when another app, After School, arrived on campus in 2015.
“We were dealing with it in the administrative offices, some with the negative reactions between students in the hallways and the classrooms,” he said. “We basically said ‘this needs to stop.’ We encouraged posting positive things about each other, and it fell by the wayside.’”
But Sale’s hands were tied when problems between students on the app occurred outside of school.
“If it doesn’t happen during school hours or isn’t affecting something in school hours, there’s nothing we can do,” he said “We refer it to our school resource officer.”
The lack of accountability can leave parents and other authority figures without a course to follow.
“They may have the idea that the channel is out there, but they can’t get the proof,” Mendez said. “When parents call us and ask ‘what do we do?’ we say ‘get everything in writing, find everything you can’ … well, look at these anonymous apps.”
The abuse teens may face on these apps is amplified by the compulsion they have to always be using the technology, authorities said.
“What we see of course is constant social media usage and immersion on the part of the kids,” said Clark Morrow, Crime Prevention Coordinator for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
As part of his work, Morrow analyzes digital trends among youths.
“FOMO” or “fear of missing out” is a very real issue among teens who value above all else being in the know among their peers, Morrow said.
“They have to be checking this all the time,” he said. “This is why teachers are telling me kids come to school in the morning like zombies; they’re not getting enough sleep.”
Margaret noticed her daughter’s preoccupation with needing to be constantly “connected” also increased as the bullying worsened.
“She was always on her phone,” Margaret said. “It would have been better to get her a flip phone than an Android or an iPhone because that way, she would be safe from bullies.”
Like Margaret, many have struggled to reconcile the risks and safety of using the technology.
"The problem is so big, it’s impossible for law enforcement to just monitor everything that’s going on, let alone [take action]," Morrow said.
“There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of apps that seem to be dedicated to cyber bullying. We have 13 year olds making apps now.”
Abusive language is just one of the disturbing ways in which teens appear to use the apps. Morrow said sexting and sharing inappropriate images has also become widespread.
“This happens all the time,” he said.
Last month a teacher in Florida was arrested for sexually assaulting a former student after inappropriate photos of the man and girl were shared on After School, police said.
Jason Tarlton was charged with sexual assault for having an alleged relationship with a former student when she attended Lake Weir High School.
In one of the pictures, Tarlton and the alleged victim are “standing in front of a mirror in a hotel bathroom partially clothed,” police said.
Tarlton is allegedly completely nude in another photo, cops said.
The 31-year-old teacher was arrested on Jan. 16 and was charged with one count of sexual assault by a custodian to a victim between the ages of 12 and 18 years old. He has since posted $10,000 bond and was released from the Marion County Jail.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said it launched its investigation after being made aware of the photos, which the teen told police she accidentally uploaded to the app.
A spokesman for After School said in a statement to InsideEdition.com: “After School is a place where teens can connect and share with other students from their school. We do not know the story behind the photographs or the nature of their relationship. After being made aware of the photos, they were removed from the app to respect the young woman’s privacy.
“Students are free to share content that complies with our Community Guidelines,” the statement continued. “Users decide what to share and what to keep private. Posts go through moderation. Teens within each school can also report posts they believe are inappropriate, which automatically removes a post from their school’s feed. When the safety of a teen, their school, or community is in question, we cooperate with law enforcement and follow established policies and procedures to resolve the situation.”
Combating bullying, which for many children has become the norm, means taking on the culture that allows it, according to those working on the front lines of the issue.
“There needs to be a cultural shift where it’s not cool to be a bully,” said Victoria Mendez.
Days after her brother Daniel’s death, his friends began the Cool 2 Be Kind club at their school, an anti-bullying initiative that took the issue head-on. Victoria Mendez insisted on attending her brother’s school and in her sophomore year, she became the C2BK club president.
Now a junior at Stanford University, she serves as the national director for the National Association of People Against Bullying’s Cool 2 Be Kind (C2BK) initiative, helping schools across the country and elsewhere create their own chapters to combat bullying.
“It’s all super grassroots—kids decided they want to have an anti-bullying initiative, do the research that’s out there and then they reach out to me,” Victoria Mendez said. “It comes from a very community and student-oriented point.”
The clubs will hold meetings to discuss the climate at their schools and how best to address it, and often organize events to promote their mission. Many also celebrate blue ribbon week, which is dedicated to anti-bullying awareness.
“It’s so powerful having the students run an anti-bullying club on campus,” Victoria Mendez said of the impact of such clubs. “It’s not just a principal having an assembly or having a guest speaker. It shows they’re ready to take a stand.”
More than 50 chapters have been created in the U.S., and chapters have also sprung up in Nicaragua and Honduras, she said.
“The other day I had a fifth grader write to me,” she said. “They were so sincere and genuine, and wrote about how they want to change their school. It’s beautiful and cool to see what they’re doing.”
The boots-on-the-ground approach can also have an effect on the culture permeating online, she said.
“I think it’s super important for kids to feel supported and know they’re not alone, and for people who have been bullied to support others and talk about the experience,” Victoria Mendez said. “There’s a lot of shame attached to bullying, a lot of people don’t want to think about themselves as victims. And it’s really not their fault.”
Creating an atmosphere of empathy can also pay dividends in the fight to stop bullying—both in person and online, Sale said. After the rise of anonymous apps hit his North Carolina school in 2015, administrators looked to the ‘Leader in Me’ program to help in getting through to the students.
“One of the reasons it may be happening in our school is because we have heavily invested in The Leader in Me, which teaches the core principals and gives students value and helps them work on inner victory, private victory—which would help a student brush off what someone is saying,” Sale said. “Secondary education can’t just be focused on academics. We have multiple things we’re trying to teach and one of them is emotional maturity and civil behavior, and we take that seriously.”
He said there has been a noted improvement in the ways students handle conflict and less anonymous-app-related issues have occurred as of late.
“I think there’s more empathy, more patience,” Sale said. “I think there’s a willingness to walk away now and not let it escalate. I think there’s a general growth and maturity for our entire high school culture now … I believe that students are capable in high school of maturing emotionally to the point where they can develop empathy and understanding of the people around them.”
Others note that anonymity has its benefits and can be the deciding factor for youths looking to express themselves without fear of judgment.
“Kids are exploring their identities," Dr. Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbulling Research Center, told InsideEdition.com. "They have questions and they have embarrassing questions they wouldn’t be comfortable [openly] asking,” “Their sexual identity or interests that may seem out of the ordinary... depending on the child’s lives at home, their peer group — maybe they don’t feel comfortable exploring those interests.”
In his work, Patchin has found many teens appreciate the ability to express themselves without being forever tied to that expression, but for reasons that are not sinister.
“Most of what kids are doing is age-appropriate,” he said. “I see many students interested in anonymous apps, or ephemeral apps, like Snapchat, because they’ve heard the [warning], 'You’ve got to be careful of your online reputation,’ and the anonymous apps, and Snapchat... allow them to have a bit of privacy.’”
Creating an environment of vigilant accountability can leave teens afraid to share anything, for fear of being permanently judged, digital citizenship expert and technology ethicist David Ryan Polgar said.
“On one hand, you have people who say you need to understand your digital footprint... that’s also saying you cannot make a mistake, which is completely against our American ideal of redemption,” he said. “That you can pull yourself up from your boot straps, you can make mistakes when you’re young and you can correct you mistakes. I think we’re doing a disservice by solely focusing on [the message of], ‘Be careful what you post.‘ I think that’s a bumper sticker and it’s far too simple.”
Patchin noted that apps looking to promote anonymity in a positive light should show that actions have consequences, even when they are believed to be done by a faceless entity.
“I’ve long advocated with companies to make anonymity a privilege,” he said. “Make it clear in your terms of service... as soon as you violate our terms of service, all bets are off.”
Parents can then point to those examples to impart the importance of good online behavior.
“Give teens a decent amount of credit and respect and encourage them to tilt toward their better angels,” Polgar said.
Matt Soeth, the co-founder of the nonprofit #ICANHELP that helps to develop digital leaders on school campuses, said teens now are being raised in a world very different from their parents, which can add stress for all involved.
"Parents are dealing with stuff that was not happening when they were kids ... they need to figure out quickly what the best practices are," he said.
In raising his own daughter, Soeth said he started the conversation around technology early.
"She's 7 years old; we talk about the safe sites to visit, videos to watch ... when I'm on Twitter, I'm showing her the types of things I'm sharing and trying to guide her while she'll actually still listen to me," he said.
And, he said, there comes a point where you have to let kids find out what works best for themselves and develop an initiative to do the right thing.
"Let them get out on their own a bit, build up resiliency so they can bounce back," Soeth said. "Young people, they're really looking for a safe place to communicate ... without someone peering over their shoulder, judging them."
Anne Collier, the founder of iCanHelpline, a social media intervention service for schools, said she has come across countless positive interactions between teens in her work.
“I’ve seen beautiful things that teenagers have done on social media," Collier said. "I know from experience, working with school admirations... I know that kids hate this stuff and they hate the drama. I think adults tend to focus on it as a negative; they tend to fear anonymity because it sort of takes control out of the equation."
She pointed to a 2013 study that showed the anonymity of a bully is not as prevalent as some research suggests. Of over 1,400 teens between the ages of 12 and 17, 73 percent of participants who were victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bully.
"There are cases that are really awful, but they’re not the norm,” she said. “They’re not the rule, they’re the exception. And that’s what we forget. You don’t read about the safe landings at airports, you read about the crashes."
After struggling to help her daughter through an onslaught of abuse, Margaret made the difficult decision to remove her from the environment.
“It started in September and I took her out in December,” she said. “They wouldn’t listen to us, and that’s when we told them ‘okay, she’s not coming back.’”
Margaret’s daughter now goes to school an hour and a half away from her home. She is living with a relative while in school.
“I see her once a week,” Margaret said, growing quiet. “I FaceTime her, and we text.”
The struggle and sacrifice Margaret made is one she said she’d do again to protect her daughter.
“I’d rather keep her there,” she said.
Her fears are not unfounded.
The suicide rate among teenage girls has continued to rise and by 2015 had hit a 40-year high, according to latest analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That rising rate, in part, is believed to be a result of bullying.
“More and more kids are committing suicide as a result of cyberbullying,” Morrow said.
Anna Mendez agreed, saying “Study after study continues to confirm there’s a very strong correlation between bullying and suicide. It isn’t a game anymore. Children are losing their lives.”
Experts urge parents to be hyper vigilant in monitoring the social media and apps their children use, and to communicate early and often about the risks of using certain sites.
“You need to take to your kids, you need to have a dialogue,” Morrow said. “Kids by definition are immature. They’re living in the moment, they’re not thinking of the consequences of what they’re doing.”
Parents can also set age restrictions on their children’s phone to prevent them from using certain apps, as well as to monitor their moves while online. Sites like safesmartsocial.com explain which sites are used for what and list the apps parents themselves should utilize to protect their children.
“Parents have to be involved in what their kids are doing with their phones," Morrow said.
He also noted parents should talk to the administrators at their children’s schools about the plans in place to deal with bullying and cyber bullying.
“Ask to see how they’re proposing to deal with it,” Morrow said.
Schools around the country are taking proactive approaches to addressing such issues, recognizing the importance of getting ahead of the problem, Mendez said.
“After Daniel's death, the school really tried to downplay the connection between his bullying and his suicide," she said. “Unfortunately with many schools, their first reaction after a child's death is distancing themselves and denial. Daniel died in 2009 and not as much was known then as we know now about the correlation between bullying and suicide. Today, some schools in Daniel's district but most importantly around the country are taking the issue much more seriously with education, training for school employees and encouraging kids to participate in the grass roots movement of beginning Cool 2 Be Kind clubs.”
Margaret’s daughter is still recovering from the pain she endured, as is Margaret.
“It’s hard, because I had to see her go through that,” she said, choking back tears. “I’m getting better. At least we know she’s doing better now.”
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