by Larry Magid
A growing number of apps allow people to post anonymously. Some of the better known ones include Ask.fm, Whisper, Secret and Yik Yak but there are new ones all the time, including After School, that’s been downloaded more than 100,000 times including by students from more than 14,000 U.S. high schools, according to Recode.net.
As Recode pointed out, After School’s seven-person staff can’t possibly police all of the posts on this growing service, though the company says it does employ software to look for particularly alarming words like “kill,” “cut” and “bomb.” As TechCrunch reported, the app has been associated with numerous bullying incidents.
There are also reports of gun threats, which prompted the Superintendent of Flushing (Michigan) Community Schools to write, “The purpose of the app continues to be in question and very concerning. Not only does it allow for individuals to post anonymous, and often times inappropriate statements and pictures, it also allows the app company access to personal information from an individual’s Facebook account.” The app was temporarily removed from the Apple app store and later reinstated with a 17+ rating.
Yik Yak has also had its share of criticism, which prompted the company to geo-fence the app so it can’t be accessed from high school campuses. Ask.fm was once the poster-child for anything goes posts, but was recently acquired by IAC with new management, a chief safety officer and a commitment to better police its service.
What all these apps have in common is the ability for people to post comments or ask questions without having to reveal their real name or, in some cases, without even having to use an account name or alias.
As I discuss in this post, there are some very positive aspects to anonymous apps, but of course there are some risks including the ability to use the app for bullying, to spread false or malicious gossip, to embarrass people, for unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment or, in some cases, to post inappropriate photos.
These concerns are nothing new — we’ve been talking about them since the Internet first became commercialized back in the 90′s. And while the specific details vary according to the app, some general principles apply for all apps, whether anonymous or not.
Know how to report. Some apps have reporting features that can alert the company’s customer service staff if someone is being abusive. Learn to find and use these features where they exist.
Call for help if you’re frightened. If someone threatens you in a way that gives you reason to fear for your safety, reach out immediately for help. Contact school authorities, parents or law enforcement if you are concerned about your safety.
You’re never completely anonymous or above the law. Even though these apps might be able to hide your identity from other users, there are ways to track people down through Internet protocol addresses, cell phone identifiers, and other clues. Both hackers and law enforcement (with proper authorization) have tools to find you.
Know what the app knows about you and your friends. It’s not uncommon for mobile social media apps to collect information about you and your friends. Pay attention to any disclosures and be extra careful about allowing the app to contact Facebook friends or people on your contact list on your behalf. Also be aware of the apps geolocation features, including tracking where are and sharing it with others.
You are responsible for your behavior. Users are both morally and legally responsible for how they behave on these apps. In addition to the possibility of prosecution, you can be banned from using the app by the operator if you violate their terms of service and there can be other repercussions from school and other authorities if you violate community rules of behavior.
Disagree respectfully. Anonymous apps often give people an opportunity to engage in spirited debate around just about any issue including politics, religion, sexuality — even your favorite smartphone or computer. These debates can be great, but they should also be respectful.
Don’t out others. Spreading rumors or revealing secrets about others is a form of bullying. Just because you know something about someone, doesn’t give you the right to share it without permission. Also, respect other people when sharing photographs. It’s best to ask permission before sharing a photo with anyone else in it and common decency to take down (or untag) a person who objects to being in a photo.
Don’t invite trouble. Sometimes people ask for trouble, by posting questions about themselves like “am I pretty” or “do you think I’m fat.” Sadly, there are people who will sometimes pounce on people who ask questions like this. Think before you ask any questions about yourself or others.
People online have feelings. This should be obvious but sometimes we forget that people on the other side of the screen are really people with genuine feelings. It’s not uncommon for folks who are pretty considerate when they meet others in person to forget their manners when they encounter them online. One thing to consider is that you don’t know the mental or emotional state of the person on the other end. What may seem to you to be just funny or mildly annoying could be emotionally devastating to that person, depending on how they interpret it and what is going on in their lives.
Why you should ‘share thoughtfully. As we say in ConnectSafley.org’s A Parents Guide to Mobile, both kids and adults “need to know that what they post is a reflection on them. Talk with them about respecting their own and others’ dignity and privacy by being aware of what they’re “saying” with both words and images.”
Remember that what you post may be permanent. Your posts may appear to go away, but chances are they’ll remain online for a long long time. And even if you delete them, there’s always a chance that someone could have copied and reposted it.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com