For those seeking to give unsolicited advice, the internet has, over the years, never failed to present ample opportunities. First there was Formspring.me. Then there was Yik Yak, which gained notoriety across American colleges for propelling gossip across campus at alarming rates. Now, there’s Sarahah, an app and website that claims to “help you in discovering your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving feedback from your employees and your friends in a private manner.”
Although Sarahah has found its (unsurprising) calling among the ranks of teenagers, the app’s developer claims to have launched the tool as a way for employees to give their managers and seniors upward feedback anonymously. Its ease of use on social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat made it an instant magnet for a much younger audience.
Here’s how it works: Users can leave anonymous comments through a link that most embed on their Snapchat stories or Instagram profiles. Things usually snowball from there.
Mariel Makalintal, a 17-year old high school junior, is well aware of the negative impacts Sarahah had on her mental health immediately after a breakup –– but not because she was receiving anonymous hate.
“Downloading it resulted mostly in me constantly checking the messages my ex-girlfriend posted on her Instagram for references to me or to our breakup or obsessing over the messages I was sent that complimented or apologized to me in the hopes that they were from her,” she says. “Its existence kind of enabled me to emphasize the petty, obsessive, more self-damaging aspects of the breakup that I otherwise might not have focused on.”
Makalintal isn’t the only Sarahah user who has noticed themselves checking the app too often or relying on it too much for mental reassurance. Having dealt with similar cases, Dr. Kimberly Hershenson, a therapist based in New York City, tells her patients that instead of turning to the app, they should “enjoy doing something free from technology such as enjoying a nice meal, meditating or taking a warm bath. After taking the first step to disconnect, begin thinking about taking a longer break and getting back into real life.”
Dr. David Ezell, clinical director at Darien Wellness in Darien, Connecticut, summarizes the app’s mission as “a misguided excuse to be passive-aggressive and cruel. True friends can tell those close to them difficult truths without the supposed aid of technology.”
But on the contrary, Makalintal shares ways in which she and her peers use the app’s anonymity to find ways to support one another. “There have been times when I know people are sad or having a bad night but I’m not close enough with them to directly message them about it, so instead I’ll send them something on Sarahah to offer support or try to make them feel a little bit better,” she says.
Makalintal’s experience is a glimmer of hope that not all the users are high schoolers looking to bait one another into emotional tailspins through nasty comments. Maria Yagoda, a 27-year-old editor and writer based in New York City, created an account on the app because she was feeling “bored and depressed, and wanted to see if people would maybe say nice things.” As a regular columnist for Vice’s Broadly, she saw an opportunity for the app to serve as a space for people to ask her anonymous questions about sex, which she then shared in this article. Among the questions she received were those that were par for the course (“Have you ever tried anal?”) as well as the slightly more unexpected (“Strangest thing you’ve ever masturbated to or with?”).
Despite the app’s use as a source of information for her article, Yagoda is very realistic about Sarahah’s limitations. “You’re never going to find fulfilling or lasting validation here, obviously.”
At the end of the day, Sarahah is really just a game of Russian roulette played with your self-confidence; you could be showered with praise from shy admirers or chewed out by angry commenters. In spite of the many instances of verbal abuse and bullying that have taken place on the app, Annie Wright, a psychotherapist based in Berkeley, California, says there is a teachable aspect here.
“Some of the benefits I’ve seen from those who have used Sarahah [are] an increased capacity for vulnerability and challenging of their social anxiety,” she says. “Being in relationship and asking for feedback is, for most of us, vulnerable if not downright scary!”