Private Investigator Julia Robson, owner of Online Investigations and cybersafety advocate warns Parents about the controversial app Talk Life which encourages school children to discuss sensitive personal issues such as suicidal thoughts, self harm, low self esteem and extreme bullying in the public domain.
The Australian owned app, reported to have 16,000 users worldwide (predominately teenagers), encourages users to speak publically and openly about their daily struggles. However, unlike support services such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue (which provide an anonymous and private telephone line operated by trained mental health professionals), the app is moderated by a public “community” who, according to the app description, “identifies with their struggles”. This “community” is defined simply by anyone who downloads the free app.
On downloading the app, the user is first encouraged to provide their full name and photograph, together with information regarding their sex and birthdate. Their personal details, including a brief biography about themselves (typically utilised by users to describe the amount of suicide attempts they have had and their ongoing personal struggles) are then provided in full next to their confessions, which include extremely disturbing confessions of self-harm, rape and illicit drug taking. Some of these confessions include goodbye messages as a result of allegations of attempted suicide.
In one example, a 12 year old female (who provides her name in full), provides the most horrifying message: “Bye. Taking the pills now.” Only three brief messages are left by the “community” in response to this cry for help – simply: “Don’t”, “Please don’t” and “DON’T!”. Viewers of this message are also offered the opportunity to send her virtual gifts such as “Take Courage” or “Warm Wishes” which can be purchased for $0.99c. Incredibly, whilst a reporting feature is available, there is no option to report this message for immediate action by a Talk Life moderator, emergency services or referral to a professional suicide prevention organisation.
On viewing a sample of messages asking for help (including a 15 year old girl who provides her full name and image with admissions to being depressed, a self harmer, anorexic, suicidal and worthless), the majority of profiles include details of their “KIK” username, an app which allows the sharing of images and recognised by Police forces worldwide as a breeding ground for online predators. Speak to any member of law enforcement who deals with child exploitation and they will tell you that grooming a child online suddenly becomes easier with the knowledge your target is suffering extreme issues with self-confidence and fitting in. A few compliments and reassurance from an anonymous ‘friend’ online, followed by few requests to see pictures, suddenly turns into a very real threat of acts such as sexting, child exploitation and sextortion.
So how does the Talk Life app verify who their “safe community” is? Well, they don’t.
Anyone with an iphone (from ages 12 onwards) can download this free app and there is no process to confirm your identity. Although it is a requirement to provide an email address before posting or viewing comments left by others, the app does not require any verification of this email account, such as clicking on a confirmation link sent to the nominated address. Without sufficient identity protocols, this app invites the potential for cyberbullies, school enemies and online predators the opportunity to be privy to incredibly sensitive conversations. These “confessions” can also run the threat of becoming part of the individual’s digital footprint, which has the potential to be viewed by future employers and partners.
With recent reports by Child psychologists stating increasing numbers of children are presenting with mental disorders, it is evident the youth of today need adequate support and a safe environment to discuss their concerns. Is a public forum which identifies the youth by name the answer? Absolutely not.