Pop quiz: What is Voxer? If you’re scratching your head, it’s time to read up on the trendy new social media apps kids are using. Friending your child on Facebook is now just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to online safety. Scroll through to see some of the sites and apps tweens and teens are flocking to these days, and get useful tips for protecting your child from cyberbullying and other online safety hazards. Have you heard about a new app causing safety concerns?
Houseparty is a video chatting app that’s pretty open. Friends can communicate with each other through live video and texts in chat groups. There’s no screening and the video is live, so there’s nothing to keep kids from inappropriate content. Users can send links via chat and even take screenshots. There’s also nothing keeping friends of friends joining groups where they may only know one person.
This app allows users to interact in a question-and-answer format — with friends, peers, and anonymous users alike. The app is rated ages 13+ and is most popular in Europe but is catching on in the U.S. Some kids have used the app for hurtful cyberbullying that has been linked to suicides.
Kik is a mobile app that people can use to text with friends at high speed and with more of a “face-to-face feel” than regular texting (users’ profile pictures appear in a little bubble next to their text, and they can quickly text photos, sketches, or even pre-designed greeting cards to individuals or groups). The app is rated ages 17+, but there is no age verification so anyone can download it. Like some other instant messenger apps, Kik allows your teen to connect with others using just a username (rather than texting from her phone number). But it begs the question: Should teens be texting with people beyond their phone contacts? Reviews in the App Store and Google Play store reveal that many people use Kik to meet strangers for sexting. The app also been connected with cyberbullying.
This walkie-talkie PTT (push-to-talk) app allows users to quickly exchange short voice messages. They can have chats going on with multiple people at a time and just have to tap the play button to hear any messages they receive. Although it largely has an adult following, including some people who use it for their job, it’s becoming popular among teens who enjoy its hybrid style of texting and talking. Hurtful messages from cyberbullies can be even more biting when they’re spoken and can be played repeatedly. Surprisingly, the app is rated ages 4+ in the App Store.
Vsco is a photo creation app that gives users the tools to shoot, edit and post images to a profile, kind of like Instagram. However, you should know that you have to manually turn on privacy settings and limit location sharing. There are also in-app purchases for more serious photo editing tools that could cost you some serious money if your kid decides to download them.
Vine is Twitter’s mobile app that allows users to shoot and share short loops of video (6 seconds or less). It’s rated 17+, but children and teens are still downloading it. As with any multimedia app, the content on Vine runs the gamut from naughty to nice. “With the most basic creative searching, kids can find nudity, sex, drug use, offensive language, hardcore sexuality, and more,” Common Sense Media says in its review of the app. “While there are plenty of cute, fun videos, even adults might be shocked at some of the things they find.”
This 17+ app’s motto is: “Share Secrets, Express Yourself, Meet New People.” It has a similar feel to the now-defunct PostSecret app, which was discontinued shortly after its release because it filled up with abusive content. Whisper lets users set up anonymous accounts to make their messages or confessions overlap an image or graphic (similar to e-postcards), which other users can then “like,” share, or comment on. While it allows for creative expression, it can also take overly personal content viral. The app also shows a user’s location. Although the app is geared toward older teens and adults, younger children are finding their way to it.
Many children and young teens are also active on this 17+ photo-sharing app. It can also be used for sharing videos and chatting. Common Sense Media says Tumblr is “too raunchy for tykes” because users can easily access pornographic, violent, and inappropriate content. Common Sense also notes that users need to jump through hoops to set up privacy settings — and until then, all of a user’s photo and content is public for all to see. Mental health experts say that Tumblr can be damaging to adolescents’ mental health because it tends to glorify self-harm and eating disorders.
Look is a free video messaging app. Users can send video (of course), test, emojis and gifs. They can also draw on and use filters on their videos. With Look, strangers can message kids pretty easily, and because there are no content filters, kids can come across inappropriate content. Users have reported cyberbullying activity and have found it difficult to delete their accounts.
Jailbreak Programs and Icon-Hiding Apps
These aren’t social media apps — and they’re confusing — but you should still know about them (especially if you have a tech-savvy teen or have had to take away your child’s mobile phone privileges because of abuse). “Jailbreaking” an iPhone or “rooting” an Android phone basically means hacking your own device to lift restrictions on allowable applications — meaning, the user can then download third-party apps not sold in the App Store or Google Play store (read: sometimes sketchy apps). It’s hard to say how many teens have jailbroken their mobile device, but instructions on how to do it are readily available on the Internet. Cydia is a popular application for jailbroken phones, and it’s a gateway to other apps called Poof and SBSettings — which are icon-hiding apps. These apps are supposedly intended to help users clear the clutter from their screens, but some young people are using them to hide questionable apps and violent games from their parents. Be aware of what the Cydia app icons look like so you know if you’re getting a complete picture of your teen’s app use.
What About Facebook and Twitter?
Do all these new social media apps mean that Facebook and Twitter are in decline? A 2013 survey by Pew Internetfound that U.S. teens have “waning enthusiasm” for Facebook — in part because their parents and other adults have taken over the domain and because their peers engage in too much “drama” on the site. But Facebook still remains the top social media site among U.S. teens, who say that their peers continue to stay on the site so they don’t miss anything happening there. Your child may keep a profile on Facebook but be much more active on newer platforms.
Meanwhile, Twitter use is rising among teens. The 2013 Pew survey found that 24 percent of online teens are on Twitter, up from 16 percent in 2011. Twitter is more popular among African American teens than Hispanic and white teens.
Next Steps for Parents
Sit down with your child and find out which apps she’s using, how they work, and whether she has experienced any issues on them, such as cyberbullying or contact from strangers. Look into apps that help you monitor your child online. And keep these tips in mind:
- You can set up age limits on your child’s device. The 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of teens say that they have lied about their age to gain access to a site or create an account, so restricting kids’ access to apps by age rating is a wise move.
- You can’t join every site or app and monitor your child’s every move online; teens will always find a new platform that their parents don’t know about yet. Rather than hovering or completely barring your child from downloading every social media app, sit down and go over some general rules to keep him smart and safe online. Here’s a good one from Common Sense Media: “If you wouldn’t share it with your family, don’t share it online.”
- Tell your child to let you know if someone is hurting her or making her feel uncomfortable online, even if the person is acting anonymously. Use the Cyberbullying Research Center’s “Questions Parents Should Ask Their Children About Technology” to guide your discussion. Our printable anti-bullying pledge and parent/child online agreement are also useful tools.
- Make a rule that your child must ask for permission before downloading any apps — even free ones — just so you’re aware of them. When your child wants to join a new social media platform, go through the security settings together to choose the ones you’re most comfortable with. Advise your child not to share passwords with anyone, including best friends, boyfriends, or girlfriends.