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About teens’ new top app ‘tbh’ & (real) safety in apps

“It’s trying to be the anti-Sarahah,” reports New York Magazine. But, like Sarahah, tbh (for “to be honest”), the newest hot app among teens in Apple’s App Store, is probably trying not to be a flash in the pan. [As of today, it’s No. 3, after Facebook Messenger and Gmail, on Apple’s “Top Charts” list for free apps, down 2 from No. 1 since’s report.]

tbh appBut before I tell you a bit more about tbh, remember Sarahah, which topped the teens’-newest-favorite chart last month? It too is used anonymously, but it wasn’t meant to be a social app (it was designed by a Saudi software engineer as a way for employees to provide candid feedback to their coworkers or employer), my friends at the Cyberbullying Research Center reported. Sarahah was hijacked by teens for their own purposes, as Formspring, now gone, was at the beginning of this decade (see this from 2010). Formspring too, like Sarahah, was designed for the workplace. But in terms of functionality, tbh is in the same category as Formspring, Sarahah and another anonymous app ASKfm – they’re all Q&A apps.

Keeping it positive

tbh stands out from similarly formatted apps in that it aims to be all positive – whereas, on Sarahah, users reportedly tend to be either really nice or really nasty. Logically, that means teens who want to know what peers think of them (remember “Am I pretty?” videos in 2012?) feel safer than in other anonymous apps. But, just as with virtually all social media, tbh relies on user complaints, or abuse reports, to keep things positive; so it’s not that insults can’t possibly happen. quotes a spokesperson as saying that, when the app gets a complaint, the content gets deleted “right away” – apparently, free speech doesn’t get a lot of behind-the-scenes debate (and that’s the spectrum we’re looking at in social media: “free speech” vs. civility). Check out’s piece to find out how the app took off, starting in the state of Georgia.

But there’s another way tbh stands out: content moderation, apparently. For now only available on iPhones, as of this writing, the app is also only available in 10 states. That’s probably for capacity reasons, and good on tbh’s creators if they’re ramping up slowly in order to be able to keep things kind (i.e., to moderate content). According to, they view all 10,000 submissions they get a day, and only 1% of those actually appear in the app. I can tell you that, after over a decade of covering social media developments, I have not seen this careful a roll-out.

That could affect tbh’s staying power, as it did Formspring’s. Another factor that could: Users can’t be social with one another; e.g., they can’t poll their friends to see if anybody knows who posted a compliment in tbh. Some use another app, like Snapchat, for that. A tbh spokesperson told NYMag that may change but didn’t elaborate. We’ll stay tuned to see if positivity and robust moderation remain a winning formula.

Teens’ other top app picks

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in what apps 13-35 year-olds “can’t live without,” though that’s a ridiculously wide swath of ages, YPulse asked them that open-ended (fill-in-the-blank) question. Their respondents’ top picks were Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Gmail and other email apps, Google Maps, Spotify, “Messages” (I’m assuming SMS texting), and the Safari and Chrome browsers (interesting that many of these are their parents’ top picks too, right?). Ypulse added that “3 in 5 tell us that they’re addicted to their phones, and over four in five say that they always have their phone within reach” (note that respondents at the high end of that age range could well be parents, right?).

Interesting note about email: A recent survey Adobe conducted found that over half of people 18-24 and 43% of 25-34 year-olds check their email before they get out of bed. “Younger people are even more likely than other age groups to bring their email obsessions into every part of their day – from workouts, to eating with friends and family, and even driving (stop that last one!),” Adobe reported.

A word to parents

I don’t buy into claims that kids aren’t safe because there are so many new apps emerging all the time that parents can’t keep up – and I don’t think you need to either. It’s not knowing the latest apps that keeps kids safe; it’s knowing our kids that does. Our paying attention to what’s going on in their lives more than in their apps is what supports them and their wellbeing.

App safeguards such as those I wrote about at Yellow and what tbh seems to have put in place are great – especially if they encourage users to post kindly – but our children are more likely to post kindly if they’re more likely to be kind wherever they are. Whether parents, caregivers or educators, we can help them with that by putting the focus on human development more than the technological kind – modeling and supporting the kindness and respect we want them to express and experience online and offline. It’s not quick or easy, but it’s also not new, unknown territory. As Theo E. J. Wilson put it in his powerful TED Talk, humanity is what needs an upgrade, and that comes with the kinds of “courageous conversations” that connect us with each other, because “the key to this upgrade is our inner world [our EQ, emotional intelligence, he said], not some device we create” or an app on it. I’ve been saying this for awhile too, that what’s happening online and on our devices is much more about our humanity than our technology, so I hope I’m not getting repetitive but – tell me in the comments below – are you seeing that too?

Related links

  • In “Facebook’s Frankenstein moment” in the New York Times, writer Kevin Roose writes, “Now that Facebook is aware of its own influence, the company can’t dodge responsibility for the world it has helped to build. In the future, blaming the monster won’t be enough.” It’s not enough for us users to blame either, because we – all of us – are the monsters’ co-creators.
  • In the TED Talk I mentioned above, Wilson said, “Technology is a lot like money. It brings out what’s already inside you and amplifies it.” He also said it’s more about “mastering the universe out there, not in here,” pointing to his heart and suggesting the emphasis is more on IQ than on EQ, a “dangerous imbalance.” I agree, which is why I believe “All kids deserve the safety & other benefits of social-emotional learning” (SEL, ideally at least in every elementary school).
  • Way back in 2010, when “online” wasn’t so mobile, I wrote about what was then seen as the Formspring problem, the public discussion surrounding it and the “new social contract” of which it was a part. Well, I think now, in 2017, we’re finally beginning to wake up to our part of the social contract, and Wilson’s talk is a sign of that.
  • I think the ultimate takeaway from “The ‘generation-destroying’ smartphone: Researchers push back” is that focusing on technology as the problem behind current statistics on loneliness, depression and suicide is distracting us from what our children, not to mention we, really need.
  • Our humanity, not our tech, is the key to fixing online hate
  • From public shaming to public compassion
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