There is an app for everything – including those targeted at teens to make ‘friends’ at the swipe of a button, track peoples movements and communicate anonymously. Parents struggle to learn about these constantly evolving and new apps and how to monitor their teens’ use of them.
Kik, Yellow, Spotafriend, WebKinz, Snapchat, Omegle, Yik Yak, Burn Note, Instagram, Line – the list of apps teens are using to communicate with friends and the wider world online is seemingly endless and always changing depending on peer use, media coverage, parental knowledge and app capabilities.
The key concern is how teens as young as 12 years of age are engaging with strangers online. Without the correct controls set on the apps they are potentially allowing them knowledge of personal details including their real-time location.
Given some of these social media apps are designed to connect teens in close proximity to one another, i.e. the same suburb, experts warn teens and parents need to be vigilant with cyber safety to minimise risks to young, naïve app users.
What parents and researchers see as “sinister apps” with “salacious materials”, many teens blankly view as new ways to get in contact with friends and meet new people quickly and easily – testing the boundaries and exploring possibilities with a click of the button.
However, with Spotafriend promoted as a teen Tinder-style app (the dating app for adults) parents should be concerned about the ease at which teens could be groomed by inappropriate users or be encouraged to behave promiscuously with other teen users of the app.
The Spotafriend website is confusing in itself, the meta description of the site (below its Google listing) describes it as “… a tinder alternative for people ages [sic] 13-19 years” yet the website has a large heading which states it is not a “teen dating app, it’s the new way to make friends.”
With recent media coverage highlighting the inappropriate promotion of the app as similar to Tinder, the Spotafriend website posted a blog entitled; “Five absolute ways to stay away from online predators” claiming the Spotafriend app is a “safe app” and including some very basic, generic ways to stay safe using social media.
The app’s website also details the method it uses to verify users’ ages, using photo recognition software, hand gestures and selfies to confirm the age range of new users – a system which was easily debunked by journalists at the Community Newspapers last week, researching the legitimacy of the methods used. Journalists also reported receiving inappropriate messages from other users soon after signing up to the app (also assuring readers they did not communicate with any users of the Spotafriend app during their research).
With the continual evolution of social media apps designed for or adopted by teens, parents are encouraged to keep the conversation open with their teens about social media use. Common Sense Media writes;
- Embrace their world – try to understand why teens use social media and which apps they like to use and why
- Teach them to respect their devices and have screen free time
- Teach them about their digital footprint and reputation online and in real life
- Use parental controls on computers and devices
- Establish guidelines about where, when, how devices will be used and online use
- Agree on downloads – which sites are appropriate to download from?
- Encourage the “Golden Rule” – if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face then don’t text it, Skype it, message it or post it
- Reassure teens that communication is key – if they feel scared, see something suspicious or bad when using social media they can tell you about it without you automatically “pulling the plug”.