Unmasking anonymous Snapchat app YOLO

When Yolo launched in May 2019, it zoomed to number one on the iTunes downloads chart. Today, it’s still in the top 100, with 10 million active users. Is your child one of them?

The Snapchat-connected anonymous messaging app made news this week when it raised an additional $8 million in funding, introducing measures aimed at protecting users from predators (even as it launches expanded group chat).

But undoubtedly the greatest risk YOLO poses is its core feature - anonymity - and how teens are likely to handle (or mishandle) it.

How it works

Yolo - a common shorthand for "You Only Live Once" - lets Snapchat users answer anonymous questions posted to their stories. Senders are simply identified as “Someone” - and stay that way unless they choose to reveal their identity.

Many kids use Yolo as a fun way to answer harmless questions - according to its developers, questions like “Who’s my celebrity lookalike?” or “How could I be nicer?” or (and here it’s already getting dicey) “What do people really think of me?”

The thing is, the cloak of invisibility that the app affords practically invites cyberbullying and hate speech.

Teens are still learning how to navigate socially - online and off.  And when there’s zero accountability the risk of inappropriate behaviour skyrockets. 

We’ve been here before

We know this because we’ve seen it before - over and over again. Apps like YikYak - described by one commentator as “a trainwreck of an anonymous messaging app” which was based on user location - Whisper (an online community where millions of people around the world share real thoughts) and the diabolical Sarahah (https://www.familyzone.com/anz/families/blog/sarahah-honestly-teen-observer).

Cyber experts have a name for this disturbing behaviour: “online disinhibition effect.” Simply put, people feel free to express their worst selves when their identities are hidden.

Don’t go there

Random thoughts questions and opinions from unknown people.

This could open up a world of hurt... isn’t there enough of that?"

- parent review of Yolo on Common Sense Media

Statistics show that somewhere between one in four and one in five Australian children have been the victims of cyberbullying and, as a result, may have an increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression.

Perhaps ironically, Snapchat recently launched a mental health initiative called “Here for you” which aims to assist with users’ emotional wellbeing, even as apps like YOLO threaten to undermine it.

At the same time, there are experts who point to benefits from anonymous apps like YOLO, noting that they can provide a forum for young people to engage more authentically and honestly than would otherwise be possible in the fishbowl of mainstream social media.

Is it right for your child?

“The concerns obviously come from the nature of the responses to your questions. We cannot control how other people respond and so we must be prepared to deal with the comments that may come our way. 

“The question of who our young people are allowing to make judgements about themselves could be an issue that should be explored,” advises Family Zone cyber expert and digital wellness specialist Martine Oglethorpe of The Modern Parent.

She recommends mums and dads discuss with their children questions like:

  • Who are you getting your feedback from?
  • What is the value of that feedback for you?
  • How will you or do you deal with negative feedback?
  • What sorts of questions shouldn’t you be asking - or answering?

Yolo is rated 17+ on the App store.

Manage your child's social media - Snapchat and Instagram included - with Family Zone's strong, flexible parental controls.

Create a cyber-safe home where children thrive - and start your free trial today!



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Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, online safety, snapchat, Yolo, anonymous apps

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