Bad Apples

With Halloween right around the corner, I’d like to look at some apps that can become a nightmare for parents.

Bad Apples
Smartphone apps have become a mainstay in recent years. These tools allow you to do things like ordering your coffee in advance, check in for a haircut, and map your way to a soccer game way out in Lodi. Not all apps are created with that same sense of helpfulness in mind though. There are apps on the App Store (iPhone) and Google Play Store (Android) that are not as helpful. These apps were not necessarily developed for nefarious reasons per say, but they can be used in ways that can help or even encourage children to make poor choices. Often, kids are not even aware of the information they are sharing with the world when using these apps. I’ve pulled together a list of potentially dangerous apps that are popular with Generation Z.

Hide It Pro / Calculator + / Vaulty
Apps like this are utilities designed to hide photos and videos from prying eyes. Once installed, Hide It Pro allows you to set up a pin code to access hidden photos and videos. The icon for the app looks like a few music notes which helps to disguise it from its true purpose. Calculator + works in a similar fashion. The difference is that when you open Calculator +, you’ll get a working calculator on the screen. Users have to enter a secret passcode on the calculator to access the hidden content.
Why is this a concern?
Apps like this, known as “vault apps” allow children to hide inappropriate content from the adults in their lives. For example, if they have received an explicit image or even taken one of themselves (40% have), these apps would hide those photos from the gallery of pictures on the phone.

Tinder / Grindr / Down
Tinder, Grindr, and Down are popular dating apps. This set of apps is designed to help users set up a romantic encounter with other users who are in a certain GPS radius of each other. Profile pictures are presented to the person using the app. If a user “flags” (swipes left, stars, etc.) another person and that person does the same in return, then the app allows the two people to communicate via text and pictures. Grindr and Down are similar how they operate and what they offer.
Why is this a concern?
Other than the obvious concern of students communicating and potentially hooking up with random strangers, the app uses GPS location to connect users. Adults/predators can use a fake profile and message to trick teens into meeting face to face. There’s a great article that explains Tinder in more depth and with more information if you’d like to understand apps like this and the potential dangers that come with them.

Snapchat
Snapchat has been one of the most popular apps among young adults for several years now. Snapchat is used to send pictures or even small movies (snaps) with a short message overlaid across to other snapchat users. Users can also apply image filters, lenses and bitmojis to add some special effects to the snaps. The messages self-destruct after a set amount of time (1-10 seconds) determined by the sender.

Snapchat initially became popular due to the short amount of time a snap could be viewed. Users liked the idea that they could send an image that would not reside online forever. It would just disappear after a few seconds. Snapchat was becoming the defacto app for sexting and inappropriate photos. It wasn’t long before users discovered that those images could be saved by the viewer and they were not immediately removed from the Snapchat servers. There were lawsuits, competitors, and some negative press along the way. Though the app had a rocky start, it has since morphed into mainstay among teens and young adults.
Why is this a concern?
Snapchat, a favorite mode of communication for many people and the vast majority of those snaps, are harmless. While it can have a darker side, many snaps simply depict various portions of a user’s daily life. Parents should be aware of what Snapchat is and how it works.

Sarahah /TBH /  Ask.fm / FormSpring / YikYak
Ask.fm was a popular site among teens, especially in 2013-14. Ask.fm works similar to Twitter. Users create a profile, and other users then follow that profile. People can then post questions and comments on the user’s profile. The difference is that users do not know the identity of who is following them or posting the comments. The idea behind the site is that users would post honest questions, feedback, and comments without being ridiculed. Cyberbullying immediately became a massive problem on the site. People could post whatever mean/hurtful comment under full anonymity. Ask.fm was purchased by Ask.com in 2015. The purchase lead to much stricter policies on the site and its popularity waned soon after. Formspring and YikYak (now closed) soon filled the void left by Ask.fm. Sarahah and TBH, the most recent apps in this group, debuted this past summer. Like it predecessors, these apps allow users to post an unfiltered “honest” comment without the user knowing who posted it.  TBH is attempting to buck the trend by only allowing people to post positive comments.  Both Sarahah and TBH (To Be Honest) are very popular at the moment.
Why is this a concern?
Sites and apps like this are a hotbed for racist comments, harassment, vulgar posts, and bullying. Imagine Facebook where anyone could say whatever they wanted with total anonymity. Cyberbullying on Ask.fm resulted in teens committing suicide on more than one occasion. Teens may be drawn to sites like this because of the “drama” they can create. These websites and apps are bad news, plain and simple.

Omegle
Omegle is an online chatting platform that randomly selects two users for a conversation. While Omegle no longer has an app, it can still be used from a smartphone and parents should be aware of it. Unlike other online messaging sites, Omegle does not require users to register with the site. Browse to the website, enter some of your interests, and you’ll instantly be paired with someone to chat. Users can choose to send a live stream of their camera or a text-only chat session. If you don’t like the conversation, a quick click of the mouse will pair you with a different person.
Why is this a concern?
The idea of chatting with strangers about topics that interest might sound intriguing. The problem here is that a significant portion of the conversations revolve around sex, drinking, and drugs. Omegle has attempted to cut down on nudity in the video chats since 2013, but it also offers an unmonitored option for video chatting as well. There is little value, if any, for adults to use this site. Teenagers and young adults should steer clear.

Kik
Kik Messenger is a massively popular messaging app among teenagers, with over 300 million users worldwide. Kik allows users to send messages via wifi and it’s not necessarily tied to a phone number. In plain English, its essentially private text messaging that doesn’t require a phone number or a data plan. Just wifi and access to the app is all anyone needs to begin communicating with other users.
Why is this a concern?
Kik is considered one of the most significant concerns by law enforcement agencies due to its popularity, ease of use, and privacy. A snippet from an article on The Verge stated “Reporters from the two publications posed as 13 and 14-year-old girls on the app, and within an hour of joining several public groups, the two profiles received numerous private messages from male users, including some with explicit language and images.”

What does that mean to parents?
It is a daunting task to stay apprised of what the latest app or online craze that is sweeping young America. An ongoing conversation about appropriate phone and internet use is essential. I urge you to consider checking your child’s phone often, set technology boundaries and monitor online behavior. There are parental control apps that allow you to monitor your child’s device, and if you find apps that you do not want your child to access, consider having a conversation about why they need to be uninstalled and the importance of safety. We’ll cover these parental control apps in a future edition of Help @ Home. Ongoing and consistent communication will help your child to develop those behaviors that will ultimately lead them to independence in making safe and responsible choices when online and on their smartphones.

What does that mean to educators?
These apps underscore one of the many reasons that districts need to provide digital citizenship training to students at all grade levels. Well designed, relevant digital citizenship curriculum can help students understand what information is safe and not safe to share online. It can provide children with strategies to deal with cyberbullying, inappropriate material, and other unwanted online interactions. As stated for parents above, ongoing and consistent communication will help your students to develop behaviors that will ultimately lead them to independence in making safe and responsible choices when online and on their smartphones.

Assignment
This week’s assignment is to do some additional research on all of these apps. I linked to articles in the descriptions above to help get you started.  If you want to have a conversation with your child about dangerous apps and websites, I believe you need have a firm understanding of exactly each one. We covered them in a few sentences here. A quick Google search will provide you with more in-depth detail on each of the items listed above. Please remember that not all of these apps indicate that your child is up to no good. Snapchat and Kik are great examples of apps that do not pose a problem when they are used correctly. Do some of your own research before speaking to your child(ren) about these and other bad “app”les.

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