Los Angeles, CA — Mercedes Molloy believes safety is a fundamental right and one that should be free. In the years after surviving a sexual assault when she was just 13, Molloy went looking for an app that could help her family and friends check her whereabouts and alert them if she was in danger. Instead, she was shocked to find most safety apps cost money to download or required paid subscriptions. At the age of 18, she dug into her own college savings to build Safe Squad, a free app that would be more inclusive.
Unlike Apple’s Find My Friends app or Snapchat’s map, Safe Squad doesn’t simply track a user’s movements at all times. To give people more privacy, Molloy designed the app so users can input a timeframe that they’ll be out, and when the time is up, the user has to check in using a unique color code. If something is amiss, the app can send an alert to an entire squad, which elicits a much faster response than if the alert only goes to one person.
On top of being the founder of Safe Squad, Molloy is also a 20-year-old college student at the New School in New York City and an activist for sexual assault survivors. YR Media’s Meghan Coyle spoke to Molloy about the app’s development and how safety has become even more relevant during the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Meghan Coyle: How did the idea for Safe Squad come about?
Mercedes Molloy: I had an instance regarding safety in 2021 and at the time, it was pretty hard to overcome. There was no Women’s March or #MeToo movement, so I was struggling in terms of seeing a solution and in terms of representation. I looked on the market for apps and noticed they only catered to women, which is not inclusive of men or the LGBT community. Prior to the pandemic, college kids were carrying keys between their hands and girls were walking in pairs, carrying mace. This was a societal norm that just wasn't acceptable. I thought, what if there was a way people could have a safety app that wouldn't really take away from their everyday lives, but they could feel empowered by using it?
MC: When the pandemic hit, people started going out less, which is what the Safe Squad app is built for. What was going through your head?
MM: I thought usage would go down because sacrificing in-person social events is so crucial to be able to combat the pandemic and effectively preserve lives. I wasn’t thinking of things from a personal standpoint, but more specifically a safety standpoint. If people weren't using my app, I thought that meant that they were at home and they were safe. But what ended up happening was survivors who were quarantined with their abusers started using it. People who were protesting with the Black Lives Matter movement started using it. There were different uses than its intended purpose, and so I felt very fortunate and usage actually increased during the epidemic.
MC: February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. What are your thoughts on teen dating today and how prevalent violence could be in this sort of atmosphere?
MM: In the era of COVID-19, dating has transitioned. Especially because young people aren't necessarily meeting people in person, but they're connecting with people online. With these dating apps, I truly wish that there was more of a verification process. Of course, on Bumble you can get a check mark, but I wish that these dating apps were more safety-oriented. I think they're very concerned with their own personal agendas and liability, but I think young people who use those apps are quite vulnerable.
MC: How did the app development process affect your healing process from the trauma?
MM: There is this misconception that healing is linear, but it's really a journey, filled both with ups and downs. When making the app, I had to recount my experience because I wanted to figure out what could have been done differently to prevent it so the next person doesn’t have to say #MeToo like I did. Prior to making the app, I wasn’t okay with talking publicly about my story. But once I did create the app, there were so many others who had a similar experience to myself, but were unable to speak out. It’s one thing to passively create an app, but I wanted to be a voice of change.
NOTE: If you or someone you know would like to speak with someone who is trained to assist sexual assault survivors, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.