Social media applications claim to be a convenient way for teens to keep in contact with their friends. Unfortunately, these apps don’t just allow teens to connect with their friends; they also allow them to communicate with complete strangers. The apps listed below are a snapshot of what is on teens’ devices at the time of this article’s creation. Although social media applications will move in and out of popularity with teens, it’s important to remember that all these troubling apps have two things in common, what I call the “two central problems with social media”: 1) Children can meet and connect with strangers outside their parents knowledge and sphere of influence; and 2) The anonymity of social media and the Internet allow children and adults to act with impunity and without the fear of being identified. If you understand these two “problems” then you can start to identify other problematic apps when they arrive on the scene. The following list of applications are problematic for the reasons mentioned above, and unfortunately they are also the most popular social media apps among teens.
Snapchat: This extremely popular app allows the user to send a picture, text, or video to another Snapchat user. What makes this app special is that the sender can assign a lifespan to the message, up to 10 seconds. Other similar apps: Blink, Skim, and Burn Note.
Problem: This app gives the sender the impression that they can send a “snap” without being concerned about the possible consequences of sending an inappropriate image or video. Snapchat is no wonder the number one sexting app. Images can be captured in a screen shot or by taking a picture with a second device. Additionally, teens might be using this app to hide conversations from their parents.
Kik Messenger: This instant messaging app is wildly popular among teens because it is cross platform (it can be installed on just about any device, e.g., iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android, or Windows phone), and you don’t need a cell phone service to use it. You only need WiFi. When teens send messages to their friends, they call it “kik’ing” a friend. Similar app: TextNow or What’sApp
Problem: A Kik user can create an account name that is not associated with a phone number, making authenticating a user’s identity difficult. The anonymous nature of the app has made it easy for sexual predators to contact children and teens to be threatened and cyberbullied.
Tinder: This app’s primary purpose is to facilitate hooking-up and dating. 450 million profiles are rated every day. Tinder utilizes GPS location tracking to find people (strangers) near you. Although the app appears to be an adult only social network, Tinder is trying to entice younger people to use it. 13-17 year-olds are now represent over 7 percent of the users on Tinder.
Problem: The problem with is app seems obvious. Tinder makes it easy for your child to meet a complete stranger, possibly an adult, within walking distance. This is a recipe for disaster. There are already several reports of women alleging they were raped after meeting a stranger on Tinder.
Whisper: Whisper is just one of many anonymous confession apps that are entering the social media scene for teens. This app allows the user to overlay an image with text to express their feelings anonymously. It does however display the area you are posting from and also allows the user to search for others posting near you. Similar app: Secret.
Problem: The anonymous nature of this app makes it ripe for cyberbullying. A user can post a picture of a fellow student and overlay derogatory text anonymously, a common tactic used by cyberbullies. The use of GPS to communicate with strangers nearby is very troubling. This app has been tied to predators using it as a means to locate children and groom them. A 16 year-old teen was allegedly raped by a 42 year-old male after “meeting” on Whisper. It is impossible to monitor teens on Whisper unless the parent has access to the teen’s phone and passwords.
Blendr & Grindr: These two apps are similar to Tinder in many ways. They are flirting apps used to meet new people through GPS location services. Grindr connects mostly males in the homosexual community. It’s popularity brought Blendr, an identical app for the heterosexual community.
Problem: Blendr and Grindr have the same security issues as Tinder. These apps are strictly for adults. These apps, with GPS location, make it easy for an adult to contact. The purpose of these apps are to hook-up with another person, therefore making them inappropriate for minors.
Ask.fm: Ask.fm is a hugely popular social media app that is almost exclusively used by teens. Ask.fm allows users to anonymously ask or answer other user’s questions.
Problem: As you know, after understanding the two central problems with social media, any app that allows its users to communicate with each other anonymous is an environment for cyberbullying or child sexual exploitation. There have been documented cases of cyberbullying on Ask.fm that have lead to suicide. A new company has bought out Ask.fm’s start-up and claims that they will clean up the site. As long as the anonymous nature of Ask.fm continues, it is not safe for minors.
Yik Yak: Yi Kak is an app that allows users to post text-only (at least presently) messages, know as “Yaks,” of up to 200 characters. The messages are viewed by the closest 500 Yakkers to the person who wrote the Yak. Yik Yak users are grouped together by their device’s GPS location services.
Problem: Yik Yak users are essentially anonymous. Yik Yak has been used to bully and threaten students. It was also used to make a bomb threat at an Orange County high school.
Omegle: Omegle is a free online chat website that allows users to communicate with others without the need to register. The service randomly pairs users in one-on-one chat sessions where they chat anonymously using the handles "You" and "Stranger.” Similar apps: Oovoo
Problem: Omegle has an "unmonitored" video chat that is not monitored for sexual content. The anonymous nature of this app has been known to attract pedophiles that want to expose themselves to children or interact with a minor that they have already groomed. On October 2, 2014, a Burnsville, Minnesota man was arrested after kidnapping and sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls he allegedly met online via the site. This has brought concern from parents about their kids accessing the site with little to no verification of age.
Poof: Poof is a “vault” app. Vault apps appear to work as advertised (a game or utility app), but in actuality they are used to hide pictures, files, and other apps inside of them; hence the name “vault” app. Poof was advertised in the iTunes app store as a game, but it later became apparent that Poof’s true purpose was to hide content from parents. Once this was discovered, Apple pulled it from the app store. It is possible that your child downloaded Poof before it was removed, or they have some other vault app on their mobile device. Similar apps: Vault-Hide, NQ Vault, App Lock, Vaulty, Hide it Pro, and Personal.
Talk to your child about cyber safety. Having an open conversation with your child about potential threats, and what to do if they encounter a problem is the key safety factor in your child’s life. Use the Cyber Safety Cop Internet Usage Contract to set boundaries and expectations for their online activity.
Be judicious when giving your child access to social media. Respect the social media app’s minimum age requirement in the User Agreement. Snapchat requires users to be at least thirteen years old.
Turn on parental controls. Use the device’s parental controls to filter content and to lock out their ability to download applications without your permission.
Physically search your child’s phone and all social media activity. Take your child’s device from out of their hands, and while they are watching you, go through all their text messages, browser history, and social media images/posts.
Install parental control applications. There are many parental control applications available for your child’s device. I have linked a recent article that has reviewed several good choices.
Stay informed. Visit www.cybersafetycop.com to learn about the next wave of social media apps.