What Parents Need to Know About Picture and Texting Apps
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Welcome to Part 3 of my “What Parents Need to Know Series.” You can find Part 1 What Parents Need to Know About Cell Phones here and Part 2: What Parents Need to Know About Facebook here. This week I’ll be focusing on picture and texting apps.
I spent the last two weeks talking with kids between the ages of 13 and 17 about the specific picture and texting apps that parents seem to be the most concerned about: Snapchat, Kik, Whisper and few others. I wrote about Whisper in detail when I went “undercover” a while ago so I won’t go into this particular app again, though I will say that the kids I spoke with recently didn’t have much to say about it. In fact, none of them even used it and didn’t know anyone who did.
When it comes to picture apps, Snapchat is the most troublesome to parents. I can understand why. When my own son asked if he could download it I said no and jokingly said, “Oh sure, and why don’t I just give you the keys to the Playboy Mansion while I’m at it.” Snapchat’s reputation didn’t surprise most of the kids I spoke with either. ” S. a 16-year-old girl said, “Snapchat had a bad rep for a while for sending nudes and I think that’s all that sticks in a parent’s head and causes them to worry.” C. another boy, agrees in saying, “…can very easily be used to hide things from parents.” So does this necessarily make SnapChat (rated 12+) an app that kids shouldn’t use? I had to use it myself to really have a grasp of how the app even worked.
Once Snapchat is downloaded, it takes some time to become familiar with using it. It functions primarily by swiping back and forth between screens, unless you need to access your account information, in which case you swipe down. When you first open the app from your phone, your faced with the camera screen. I confirmed with niece (who is 16 and a SnapChat queen) that there is no newsfeed similar to Facebook or Twitter. All SnapChat is meant to do is trade pictures and then there is the “chat” option as well.
When you tap the ghost that is at the top of the camera page (or swipe down on it) you are able to access your account page. As you can see I am not earning many points in the Snapchat world. There are no real benefits to these points other than bragging rights, so I’m ranking pretty low (sorry niece!). From this screen you’re then able to add new friends — either through searching for their username or by a code, or through your contact list. Both Snapchat and Kik pressure the user to access your contact list.
It’s not clearly visible here, but in the top right corner is a gear that you can tap and there are very few security options that a user can utilize to keep their account secure. However, I found through my conversations over the past couple weeks that at least these particular teenagers do utilize the security options when they are available. A 17-year-old-boy, says, “I’m smart enough to know what to do and not to do. It’s in all reality common sense”
There are three main options when it comes to account security in Snapchat. You’re able to block another user, which should be a no-brainer in any app design in my opinion. You’re also able to determine who can send you pictures, in this case they’re called “snaps”. Most everyone I spoke with said they only allow their friends to send them snaps and that they only accept people that they know to be their friends. Snapchat also has a relatively new feature called “My Story”. This is where a user can add on to their snaps for a 24-hour period so that the multiple snaps become a pictorial story. These are the only things that will show up in a user’s newsfeed. A user can also determine who amongst their friends can view their story or if everyone can.
So, there are security features in place but they’re only as good as the person who enforces them. If a user accepts everyone as a friend on Snapchat than that security feature is as good as three dollar bill.
As far as where a user can go on Snapchat, there are very few options. A person can only swipe left of right to access different menus or down in order to get to personal settings. To get to your previous chats, you swipe left. If you send a picture via chat, that picture remains until the other person deletes it whereas the picture sent via snap disappears after a certain length of time. Swipe right once to see stories that are happening live, including any stories by your friends. You’re also able to add any friends from this screen. Swipe right again to see stories by other major media outlets.
When it comes to images not really disappearing and the concept of internet permanence, I asked some of the kids if they really understand that nothing really disappears or if they felt that adults (i.e., parents) patronized them when it comes to that topic. They really became animated with this topic. On the most part, yes, they “got it”. They just didn’t care. They felt that adults didn’t understand that fifty pictures of them doing duck lips or fishy faces weren’t going to ruin their future careers. I have to admit that I had to agree with them. As one person said, “Not that they don’t trust me, they just don’t trust the rest of the world.” I understand that feeling.
I was surprised that Instagram did not make the list when I asked parents about picture apps, yet many of the kids I spoke with use it consistently. I’m still going to take a moment to talk about Instagram because it’s not as innocuous as parents think it can be. Unlike Snapchat, a user can access a universal timeline just by tapping on the search screen (the magnifying glass). From there it’s really a crapshoot as to what the user will find. Users can search for hashtags as well as people, so entering a hashtag will bring up just about anything. Plus, there are ways that kids can be giving out personal information without even realizing it.
Online predators are far more sophisticated than most will, or want to, give them credit. They spend enough time online to understand how kids use social media and how to communicate like them. They are also savvy enough to create their profiles so as to blend in with them. Sometimes it’s easy to pick one out right away but most times it’s not. An app like Instagram can be easy to pick apart for information, no matter how well you think you’ve locked it up. So let’s take a look at the one I use for C. Streetlights:
When you first open up your profile page you want to make sure you’ve turned off your geotagging. Even if you have turned this off in the main settings of your phone, Instagram could still have this set up within the individual app’s settings. Shut this off. You want to do this for several reasons, but most importantly it removes the possibility of you or your kids being identified through location. L., a 13-year-old, learned about this in an unfortunate way, “I had some weird guy message me with a screenshot of my school saying that he could come pick me up after tennis practice.” She went on to tell me how one of her pictures was geotagged with her city’s name and her profile picture showed her in her tennis uniform. Even though the uniform didn’t show the school name, the guy was able to figure out what junior high she attended and matched the geotag. L. says, “I don’t have anything geotagged now. And I don’t have anything that can be matched to anything!” As a mother, that kind of story freaks me out. Predators will absolutely go through that kind of trouble to track down possible victim.
Next to the geotagging menu is the tagging menu. We talked quite a bit about tagging last week while discussing Facebook and the issue is similar in Instagram. You can have all your security features in place and all it takes is to have you or your child is tagged in one photograph to reveal everything about you. Tap the tagging menu (it looks like a clipboard) and it will show all the photographs you’ve been tagged in. You can then decide to hide all the photos you’ve been tagged in or decide to manually add each photograph you are tagged in as they are added to Instagram. This gives you more control over what other Instagram users see about you. When my son has his Instagram account (since deleted) he was constantly tagged in photographs. Since he was on a soccer team, he would be tagged on countless team photos or practice photos, etc. From those photographs, someone would be able to see what school he went to or the city he lived in — not because that information was on his profile, but because it was on the profile of the person who tagged him. Thing of a tag as a gateway. Once that tag is in place it creates a gateway to another profile that can provide more information. R., a 15-year-old boy told me, “Because I was tagged in my neighbor’s birthday party picture, her stupid best friend found my Instagram page and my Facebook. Now she won’t leave me alone. It’s so annoying!” Less creepy than the tennis story but still intrusive.
The best option for kids and Instagram is to keep their accounts private and to not direct message anyone unless they are friends in real life. As more and more kids are using apps for multiple reasons, like texting, parents need to be more willing to listen and discuss with their children the give and take for privacy and boundaries.
Texting apps tend to overlap in many ways with picture apps. Snapchat is primarily a picture app but can also be used for texting or chatting. Instagram is definitely a picture app but does have a texting/messaging feature. Pure texting apps would be an app like Kik or YikYak. None of the kids I spoke with used YikYak, Kik, or WhatsApp. There have been recent news stories about YikYak and users posting hate speech and threats on campus, putting YikYak in a First Amendment bullseye. Basically YikYak is like an anonymous bulletin board. Users post comments from within a geofenced parameter and then these comments can then be voted up or down. It’s designed to be used at the college level, which is why the geofence is in place in order to exclude middle through high school locations. Obviously, the user would have to have his or her geolocation turned on in order to use. WhatsApp isn’t used much either in the younger age bracket but is very useful if you friends out of the country because then you can text internationally.
Kik, however, is frequently used though not by those I spoke with. According to the company itself, 40% of its users is made up of teenagers. And while it is claims to be just a texting app, it includes a “flirting” component similar to Tinder called “Match and Chat” which allows you to swipe right or left. Because there is no real profile to look at other than a photograph, a person really can be whomever they want in order to convince the other person to chat for a while. I chatted with Darth Vader just the other day on Kik. Unlike Snapchat, you can’t decide who can or can’t send you pictures or videos, so when Darth Vader sent me a random picture of his, ahem, light saber, it wasn’t because I asked for it. There is no way to make your profile private on Kik so the only recourse you have is to block another user. Darth is now blocked, but of course Darth can also set up a million different usernames. Kik users have the luxury of being 100% anonymous which makes it a dangerous app. Most recently, Kik has been linked to the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl — a case involving the app that has received the most publicity so far. Kik is definitely not an app for kids or teenagers until the developers have committed to creating safety features within the app to protect minors. Up until now, they have not made any commitments nor are they willing to open up a discussion in that regard.
When I asked these awesome teenagers whose responsibility it was to prevent the misuse of picture or texting apps, they all had pretty clear opinions as to who should be calling the shots. They all more or less said that the app designer has a responsibility to make sure the app itself is age-appropriate, but that parents have the responsibility to teach their kids how to be responsible with the app. The majority of these kids identified parents as being the ones who needed to teach their kids right from wrong, not the app designer. Further, when I asked if they would obey if their parents told them to stop using a particular app or would they only stop if their parents had a valid reason, they said they would really only stop using it if their parents had a legitimate or reasonable concern and discussed it with them.
Every single person I spoke with regarding responsible social media use had legitimate concerns. We all do. However, from what I heard and can infer from the kids I spoke with, our kids will listen to us when we talk to them as long as we are reasonable and have valid points. This means we can’t be hysterical about all the media. Kids value their privacy and space just as much as we do. I understand the need to have a platform like Snapchat where they exchange goofy pictures back and forth because it’s just their little world to be silly in. Adults don’t have to overanalyze that. Aim for an open relationship with your kids where your kids are willing to show you their phones and apps at any time, and hopefully there will be less fear and more understanding. I think 16-year-old S. sums it up perfectly, “trust between a parent and their child is huge. I hate when my parents harp down on me about everything on my social media. They’ve taught me what’s right and wrong and why, and I can respect that. Therefore they trust me to not post anything that puts me in danger and I can trust them if I need help involving my social media accounts.”