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Teens gonna teen. But apps don't need to make it easier for them.
Teens gonna teen. But apps don’t need to make it easier for them.

Image: Getty Images/Maskot

An app is once again making it easier for teens to talk trash about each other.

There is growing worry among parents, digital watchdog organizations, and schools about an app called Tellonym. The app lets users ask and answer questions about each other anonymously — a concept that some say is enabling cyberbullying and cruelty.

Founded in 2016 by a trio of teenaged students in Germany, Tellonym says on the App Store that it has 13 million users worldwide; the app monitoring service SensorTower reports that the app had 600,000 downloads in January 2019. 

The idea is that users make a non-anonymous profile. Then, on that profile, users anonymously leave “tells,” or messages intended to “tell me what you think of me.” The app calls itself “the most honest place on the internet”; the name “Tellonym” is a play on “anonymous” and “tell on him.” What could go wrong?

In July 2018, the app appeared to gain traction internationally. The Manchester Evening News reported that schools were beginning to warn parents about cyberbullying on the app. The story gained national attention in the UK.

The pattern appears to be repeating itself in the United States. Mashable has learned that U.S. schools are also advising parents to check their teens’ phones for Tellonym, and any sign of cyberbullying. PopSugar and CNN began to sound the alarm in January 2019. And parental watchdog organizations including Protect Young Eyes and Common Sense Media have also sought to educate parents about the app. One parent who reviewed the app on Common Sense described Tellonym — which her daughter uses — as “nothing but a platform for bullying.”

Tellonym says on its website that it’s trying to prevent bullying. It says it blocks 85 percent of short messages that violate its terms, and apparently removes 50 percent of messages longer than 15 characters. 

“Our filters are in place to remove content automatically which is not compliant to our Community Guidelines – we do have an active moderator community which helps us improve those filters on a regular basis and having a strong dataset to test those filters,” the Tellonym’s website reads.

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The concept of anonymous messaging isn’t exactly new, but it hasn’t fared well — especially when these services become popular among teenagers. Anonymous messaging services Yik Yak and Sarahah both shut down following controversy around abuse and bullying.

Further, inconsistencies, errors, and the casual communication style on the site does not bolster confidence in the Tellonym team’s ability to manage an anonymous community of cruel teenagers. 

First, it’s not clear who is even allowed to use this app. Tellonym’s page in the App Store says users must be above 17, while Tellonym’s Terms of Use page on its own website says users must be above 13.

Image: screenshot: rachel kraus/mashable

Image: screenshot: rachel kraus/mashable

Next, the link Tellonym directs readers to with “an explanation of all our safety options” just links to an empty Tellonym “safety” profile — users can leave “tells,” supposedly about safety? But there’s no actual information here. The explanation of safety on the site is peppered with kissy-face emoji.

Finally, a look at the Tellonym team on the website simply shows a photo of seven white men and one white woman, who all appear to be in their late teens or early 20s; CEO Max Rellin writes on his website that he is 19 years old. 

Social media is rife with racial, sexual, and gendered discrimination and harassment. It’s not clear what qualifications this group has to deal with that (Mashable reached out to Rellin for more information about this).

Anonymous messaging, in theory, could enable fun and honest communication. However, it hasn’t played out that way in the real world: anonymous messaging is a source of trolling and harassment all over the internet. Ignoring that vicious reality seems like a decision made by, well, teenagers.

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