It seems like every week a new app targeted at teens with an abstract one-word name is making headlines for being dangerous. Taking time to understand these apps, and your teen, can set your mind at ease while ensuring their safety.
Teenagers are the ideal market for apps – they use the software intuitively, are enthusiastic about new technology, and quickly spread their favourite new apps throughout their social group.
It often seems that every time a new teen app comes along, hundreds of newspaper headlines quickly follow in its wake, telling horror stories about the lack of privacy settings and cyber-bullying. These articles usually finish with a message to parents, admonishing them for not being aware of what their teens are doing and calling for greater supervision (every fifteen-year-old’s favourite kind of parental involvement).
As a parent, this may leave you wondering: “How do I help my child use their phone (and apps) wisely when I don’t even know what the danger is?”
Don’t worry! There’s really no need for immediate panic about any of the apps that have been featured on the news lately. There are, however, steps that you can take to understand why your teen loves these new apps, the importance of back-and-forth discussions about safety, and whether you need to monitor app usage at all.
What is it? Snapchat is an incredibly easy way to send pictures and videos (“snaps”) between friends. The alluring part of this app is that the snaps are (theoretically) inaccessible after they are viewed a single time.
Why teens love it: There are a lot of reasons teenagers love Snapchat. It’s a fun way to show their friends what they are up to, share their adventures with their social circle, and to send hilarious or ugly photos that will theoretically never see the light of day again.
Conversations to have:
Perceived privacy vs. reality: Unfortunately, Snapchat photos aren’t impossible to recover like many would have you think. While it can be difficult to recover them, it can (and has) been done – teens need to be aware that they cannot take this promise at face value, and should take steps to avoid becoming a victim of a Snapchat leak!
Content of snaps: The temporary nature of a snap can lead many teens to take pictures that are more risqué or otherwise inappropriate than they would take otherwise. Be sure to discuss the importance of privacy and respect when it comes to taking photos of themselves or others – no matter how long the photo is visible for!
What is it? Tumblr is a microblogging platform that allows your teen to have their own blog and interact with thousands of other Tumblr users across the globe. It is commonly used as a place for fan discussions about books or movies, a way to showcase artwork, and a way to discuss current events.
Why teens love it: One of the biggest reasons teens love Tumblr is that it is largely unregulated and incredibly far-reaching. All kinds of content is available on the platform, and can be easily found using the search feature. Tumblr is a great way for communities to form around a niche interest or idea, and teens often find entertainment, friendship, advice, and inspiration from peers’ blogs.
Conversations to have:
Content awareness: There are Tumblr communities dedicated to just about any topic under the sun. While it can be exciting for your teen to have someone to talk to about new episodes of their favourite TV show, other communities are dedicated to much darker themes (such as eating disorders or graphic images). Have a conversation with your teen about the kinds of blogs that they follow, and discuss strategies for recognizing (and avoiding) harmful content and other strategies for validating information that they may find online.
Caution: While many interactions on Tumblr are incredibly supportive, the anonymity it offers can occasionally lead to cruelty and random bullying stemming from a difference of opinion. Make sure that your teen knows they can come to you if they have a negative experience online, and have open conversations about the best ways to guarantee respectful dialogues online.
What is it? Yik Yak allows users to communicate anonymously with others in the same 10 mile radius through short, completely anonymous messages (“yaks”) that can be upvoted or downvoted by all other users.
Why teens love it: Who wouldn’t love a chance to speak their mind anonymously about local events? Teenagers see Yik Yak as a great way to let off steam about a frustrating teacher, ask questions about local events, or to tell one-liners. Popular yaks can also gain users “yak karma” points through upvotes – it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still fun to watch the number climb.
Conversations to have:
Ettiquette: Just because the app is anonymous, doesn’t mean that there isn’t an implicit ettiquette code for Yik Yak. Talk with your teen about respectful dialogue and the importance of keeping both their identity and the identity of others a secret.
Bullying: Unfortunately, the anonymity that makes this app so great can also have huge repercussions if it is used with the intent to hurt others. Teach your teen to recognize what bullying is, and talk about the importance of telling an adult (whether at school or at home) if bullying becomes evident.
What is it? Vine is an app created by Twitter that allows users to share short (six seconds) looping videos with others. Once you have a smartphone and a basic understanding of how to use Vine, you can share your video with others through Vine’s network or on any other social media platform.
Why teens love it: While it might seem like there isn’t enough time in a Vine to make much of an impression at all, there are people out there who can use those six seconds to their maximum potential. Vines are frequently either comedic or artsy, and many appear as well-directed as a blockbuster film! Other vines may be used to show key sports moments or to showcase current events.
Conversations to have:
Privacy: Vines are generally created with the intent to share them far and wide. Be sure that your teen understands the importance of protecting the privacy of anyone featured in their filming process (including themselves!) and that filming strangers without their permission isn’t okay!
When not to “do it for the Vine”: A lot of Vines rely on shock tactics, stupidity, or dangerous stunts. It’s important to talk with your teenagers about making sure that the process of shooting their videos never comes with the risk of hurting them or another person.
What is it? Ask.fm is a website (and app) dedicated to giving users the chance to ask and answer questions. While it sounds like a somewhat pointless app, it can be surprisingly addictive and also dangerous – there are a number of reasons to be cautious about Ask.fm.
Why do teens like it? Ask.fm is the modern version of truth or dare – only without the dares, and without being limited to your closest friends at a sleepover. At its best, Ask.fm is a great way to get to know your friends better, but questions can be asked anonymously, which can lead to deeper secrets or risky conversations.
Conversations to have:
Real world repercussions: Ask.fm does not have the strictest privacy settings, meaning that your teen’s answers can often be visible to anyone who knows their username. Talk to them about using good judgment when answering questions, and avoiding any information that they would not want to say in a speech in front of their peers or explain to Grandma over Sunday dinner.
Peer Pressure: For some reason, teens often feel like they have to answer every question that comes across their ask box. Be sure to emphasize with your teen that they do not need to answer any question that is inappropriate, crosses a line, or makes them feel uncomfortable. You may also want to suggest that they disallow questions asked by anonymous users.
What Else Can You Do?
The frustrating thing about these apps is that there is nothing inherently good or bad about them. In fact, everything on this list can be used in positive, wholesome, and educational ways – even though the media chooses to focus on their less-savoury contributions to society. These conflicting messages generally leave parents without black-and-white steps to take in ensuring their children are safe online.
If you want to monitor your teen’s online activity more closely, why not download a few of the apps yourself?
Downloading Yik Yak will allow you to see everything that your child can, and it is well within your rights as a parent to know your teen’s usernames on Tumblr, Vine, and Ask.fm. Unfortunately, Snapchat cannot be monitored – but you could become Snapchat friends with your teen so that you can at least see the snaps that they choose to add to their story (a separate set of snaps that can be viewed by anyone on your child’s friends list for 24 hours after they are posted).
There is a lot to consider when deciding if certain apps are safe enough for your teen to use – a lot will depend on their age, interests, and offline behaviour.
One thing to consider is that teens are generally one step ahead of the rest of the population when it comes to adopting new apps and creating online communities – instead of trying to limit their access to these apps (a losing battle), it may be better to teach your teen about privacy online and facilitate on-going discussions about what is, and isn’t, appropriate content to view and send online.
What apps have you noticed your teen using? Do any of them worry you?