Power of Anonymity for Teens Online

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I lied to my friend when she asked if I was interested in her boyfriend. In fact, her boyfriend and I have already been out on two dates!” wrote an anonymous teen online. Anonymous confessions and other communication are becoming increasingly common as teenagers are flocking to a range of websites and apps that allow for teens to communicate anonymously with each other.

The trend towards anonymous apps and social networks among teenagers has been picking up momentum over the past couple of years. The reason teens are flocking to these apps and social networks is the sense that they are always in the public spotlight. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter keep track of everything that they post or do online. These records are easily found and teenagers are being held accountable for their actions. While accountability for one’s actions is a life lesson that everyone needs to learn, there is also a need to be allowed to make mistakes and be irreverent. Anonymous communication allows this freedom and still lets teens use the electronics they enjoy.

As a result, anonymizing apps and social networks have proliferated. There are anonymous question and answer sites and apps like Formspring and Ask.fm. Other apps like Whisper and Secret allow users to vent and confess secrets anonymously. These apps are gaining rapidly in popularity as it feeds into the age old desire for gossip. Finally there is the picture sharing app Snapchat which allows users to send photos to others that disappear within seconds of having been received. While many teenagers can use anonymous apps and social networks without experiencing any negative consequences, there are drawbacks to using such services.

The main drawback of these services goes to the heart of anonymous communications. At its core, anonymity strips users of any accountability for their actions. This issue goes all the way back to Plato and the Ring of Gyges where the ring allowed the user to become invisible. The question became whether an average person could behave morally if there was no threat of being caught. While this was a philosophical question back in Plato’s day, it is now being lived out by today’s teenagers.

Another drawback is that teenagers do not see the reactions of others to their comments. This is particularly important for teens as the way people react to something that is said can be a powerful learning experience regarding what is an appropriate versus inappropriate way of interacting. There is nothing like the look on other people’s faces when they are hurt or offended by a comment to make teens realize that there are better way to express their opinions.

The end result of these drawbacks to anonymous communication is that conversations have become more volatile and messages become more crude and profane. Once others see that this style of communication is acceptable, then it starts proliferating throughout these services. It also increases the acceptability of targeting a particular person with these comments which can result in harassment and cyberbullying.

Most teenagers are using some of the apps and social networks that have been mentioned above. While using these services can be fun, make sure to also talk with teens about some of the drawbacks. In the end, following the Golden Rule of treating others as you would like to be treated is the best advice for staying out of trouble while using these anonymous apps and social networks.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in March 2014.

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