When the message appeared on Ryan Dominick’s smartphone, the 14-year-old paused to muster some courage. In it was a link sent by an unknown user that could contain anything from a flirtatious come-on to an embarrassing put-down.
It turned out to be a picture of Ryan photoshopped to make him look overweight, complete with multiple chins and engorged cheeks. Luckily, the athletic and confident freshman found the picture hilarious.
“LOL,” he responded to the anonymous sender while literally laughing out loud and showing the picture to friends.
The picture was typical of the pranks exchanged among Ryan’s Los Angeles classmates on the anonymous-messaging app Backchat, one of a fast-expanding breed of social-media apps that mask users’ identities and can create messages that self-destruct.
Anonymous and ephemeral, apps such as Whisper, Secret, Ask.fm and Snapchat fill a growing demand among teens for more fun, less accountability and more privacy online.
But the boom is opening secret new corners of the Internet at a time when educators and law enforcement officials are worried about the safety of youths online. As teens look increasingly for alternatives to the social giants Facebook and Twitter, the anonymous apps create the opportunity for bullying and cruelty in a forum where they cannot be tracked.
Educators, parents and law enforcement officials complain that it’s hard enough to keep up with activity on public forums such as Facebook. Accounts on the anonymous sites are even harder to monitor, they say, noting that the popular anonymous question-and-answer forum Ask.fm has become a magnet for cyberbullying.
The apps fill a critical need, however, among teens, the majority of whom have their own smartphones and manage their social lives on multiple online networks.
Besides, when parents, grandparents and youth-sports coaches became core users of Facebook, kids naturally gravitated to new places where they could socialize away from the watchful eye of adults, experts say.
“Youth need a way to share material in a more natural way, like a voice conversation, and that they don’t have to worry about lingering around and being part of what’s now become curated life online,” said Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Experts estimate that dozens of anonymous and so-called “ephemeral” apps such as Snapchat have sprung up, attracting millions of teenage users.
Take Backchat: The app was created by Ryan’s 14-year-old classmate Daniel Singer and attracted 125,000 members in its first few months.
“There’s suspense in not knowing who is sending you messages, and it’s actually kind of fun, knowing someone spent the time to make the photo,” said Ryan, who has been on a hunt to find the mystery sender of the picture.
Secret was created by former employees of Google and Foursquare. The Secret app combs through users’ contact lists to find other members of the anonymous network. A user never knows which of his or her friends might be a Secret user, too.
Some of the Secret posts target individuals. One recent post invited condemnation of a girl who was identified by name: “Raise your hand if any of you have ever felt personally victimized by” the girl, it said.
Among the comments, came this reply: “Push her in front of a bus.”
Chrys Bader, a co-founder of Secret, said that the site allows users to flag abusive comments and that harmful posts will be taken down.
This month, Olivia Birdsong, a 13-year-old Memphis resident, saw classmates trash a girl as a “slut” on the question-and-answer board Ask.fm.
“The worst stuff happens on the anonymous sites because people are either too scared to say something to someone’s face or they want to present someone with public humiliation,” Olivia said.
Ask.fm, based in Latvia, has emerged as a particularly vicious online playground. Florida resident Rebecca Sedwick, 12, jumped to her death in September after cyberbullying by former classmates on Ask.fm and other social networks.
“You seriously deserve to die,” read one message directed to Rebecca on the site.
Arielle Ampeh, a high-school student in Alexandria, Va., said she resisted using social networks until last year. At first, she just joined Facebook. But Arielle has graduated to Snapchat, where she likes to post silly pictures of dogs and look at photos from friends. She also follows popular posts on Tumblr.
Arielle said she remains a cautious user who mostly browses friends’ posts and rarely contributes anything of her own.
Still, she said, “it’s hard not to be on social networks.”