Everything a Parent Needs to Know About WHISPER
In July, 2014, a 42-year-old man was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The predator had “met” the girl online through an app that lets users share secrets anonymously, add comments and send private messages to other users.
The app that linked the alleged rapist to his teen victim is called Whisper.
What Exactly is Whisper?
Whisper is an online community that allows users to post statements to the public, as well as to send private messages to other users — all without revealing their identities. Referred to by Business Insider as an “open-source diary,” the format differs from Facebook and Twitter because statements aren’t linked to the people who make them.
The app’s founder told a publication that Whisper is “who you are when no one else is looking.” For a demonstration, the founder asked a room full of students at USC a private sexual question. No one raised their hand. When he blindfolded the group, turned the lights off and asked the same question, half of the students raised their hands.
The first scenario, he said, was Facebook. The second was Whisper.
Whisper thrives on the anonymity it extends to its users, but as the tech world witnessed when the failed site Juicy Campus was sued when users were defamed on the site, anonymous chat sites can become some of the ugliest corners of the Internet.
The Numbers Behind Whisper
Despite, or perhaps because of its secretive nature, Whisper is a popular app.
- Whisper has 20 million users.
- Whisper boasts users in 187 countries.
- Whisper gets nearly 3 million page views per day.
When it comes to young people, Whisper is very popular among the college set. As many as 90 percent of Whisper users are between the ages of 18-24. Younger teens are discouraged from using the app; Whisper has an age restriction requiring users to be 17 or older.
However, this age limit is not enforced; it’s estimated around 4 percent of users on Whisper are younger than 18.
What You’ll Find on Whisper
Perhaps one reason attracts a regular “readership” is that it follows a tried and true formula: Whisper’s online homepage is a collage of the immensely popular Buzzfeed-style lists and photo memes. These “Whispers” range from thoughtful or sad to crude and provacative.
A sample of recent trending Whispers include
- “Make America great again is code for make America white again.”
- “My first reaction when someone tells me they’re pregnant is ‘I’m sorry’ instead of ‘congrats’.”
- “People put virginity in such high regard, and then act as if you’ve lost a limb when you have sex. What’s the deal with marriage? Why not just wait until you feel comfortable and want it?”
- “I can’t have sex without love.”
In the smartphone app, however, Whisper also allows users to search content that has been posted “nearby”, which is concerning. Amidst random secrets, location-based posts are often used to anonymously solicit sexting and sex from strangers nearby. These posts are not restricted based on age, nor offers any warnings for explicit content:
Anonymous, But Not Truly Private
Forbes reports that although public posts are created anonymously, user information is not as private as the Whisper faithful may think. The app tracks users as a part of its mission to keep serial offenders from repeatedly posting inappropriate content.
Dangers Teens Face on Whisper
Like Yik Yak and other anonymous bulletin board apps, Whisper operates in the online realm where users can write anything they want without being held accountable for the things they say.
According to one writer who covers online teen safety, “Whisper’s anything-goes culture is packed with cruelty, cyber bullying, racism, homophobia, and vulgarity.”
The “online diary” format of Whisper encourages users to post private, intimate thoughts and details. The app is littered with private confessions and revelations, from struggles with eating disorders to problems at home to bouts of depression.
But, as mentioned above (and unlike similar apps like Instagram or Tumblr) Whisper offers no warnings to teens — or anyone — who use hashtags to search for potentially harmful material. The popular hashtag #thinspo, for example, is short for “thinspiration” and leads to content encouraging people with eating disorders to continue their harmful behavior.
Also equally worrisome, since users can comment on posts and send private messages, predators can identify vulnerable or naive teens and use their self-confessed weaknesses as an entry point into their lives.
If this happens, Whisper can do little to help. The app says it does not cooperate with user information requests from law enforcement, except in specific cases where police present subpoenas or if someone’s life is threatened in an emergency. If a user feels threatened or violated by another user who is sending inappropriate private messages, Whisper only recommends they contact local law enforcement.
Whisper’s golden rule is “Don’t be mean, don’t be gross, and don’t break the law.” This motto, however — and Whisper’s most sincere efforts to enforce it — did little to protect the 16-year-old girl from her accused rapist.
Like all anonymous apps, Whisper gives your teen a forum to post intimate thoughts with people he or she doesn’t know and who could easily be misrepresenting their identities or their intentions. For parents, communication and monitoring are the key to keeping their teens safe online — whether it’s on Whisper or any other application.