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Sunday Mornings with Rania: Most Dangerous Apps 101

Rania Mankarious
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Sunday Mornings with RaniaYesterday, a young man senselessly opened fire killing 20 and injuring many more at a Walmart in El Paso. He had posted his manifesto on an app called 8chan. Last week I wrote about the tragic killing of 17-year-old Bianca Devins as well as the social media world in which she lived. We discussed Discord, 4chan, Tellonym and the alarming communities that swarm to these apps - groups like orbiters, incels and others. Not only were parents utterly shocked by the manner in which this young life was taken and the role social media played but a record number reached out to me to ask about other platforms and what some of the dangers could be - we all feel overwhelmed by a world we don’t know yet cannot fully keep from our children. So, what do we do? Talk to our kids about the big picture issues with social media, understand the buckets that most popular apps (the list will forever change) fall into and how they work and have a game plan for how your children will navigate any and all apps they are on. 

Big Picture Issues 

  • Social media is a wonderful tool used by teens, adults, influencers, businesses, artists and leaders of all kinds. We cannot keep it out of our lives but the concerns for our kids are real and stem from: 
  • Who is on social media with them? Social media brings your child and their life into the reach of everyone - good and bad.
  • Who is specifically following them? 
  • What is their goal with social media? To live a life online that they are too shy to live in person? To share their life? To gain followers and be popular? To become an influencer? To simply connect with friends? To share their thoughts, secrets, talents, hopes and dreams? You might be surprised to see how many kids feel social media is the only place they can share their true feelings, biggest secrets and fears. Combining any of these reasons with the fact that we don’t know who is really following them starts to create a path to trouble. 
  • Who might reach out to them? They will be approached by people they do not know. 
  • What type of information can someone use against them? 
  • What privacy settings do they have on their phones? What about for each specific app? Think location services. Do they use their real name, phone, email and address to set up each app? 
  • What images will they see? Everyone who followed Bianca Devins and/or the boy that killed her had images of her slain neck and her dead body on their feed.
  • What images will they be asked to show? People may ask to see explicit photos of your child. 
  • What social issues will they be pulled into? Think bullying others, being bullied but also mob mentality thinking - it’s a huge phenomenon on social media. 
  • What crimes may target them? Not only are predators thriving on social media but many usernames and passwords, identities, images, etc. are stolen daily.  

Talk through each of these issues with your child. If they are not mature enough to handle these questions and talk through them, they are not mature enough for social media. 

Have a Basic Understanding of Buckets and How the Most Popular Apps Work. 
There are so many apps, but it helps to think of them in groups. Apps, in general, fall into buckets that draw kids together so they can:

  • Bucket 1 - talk, message, share photos or videos - as a game or in reality;
  • Bucket 2 - help with dating
  • Bucket 3 - discuss gaming strategies (think Discord from my last post); 
  • Bucket 4 - engage in Q&A (remember Tellonym from my last post); 
  • Bucket 5 - share their thoughts
  • Bucket 6 - share their secrets

How they achieve their purposes vary and the tools they employ to connect users is similar and concerning but in general, the purpose for the app usually falls into one of those broader buckets. 

While this list is in no particular order, these are the most common apps that show up when you search “most dangerous apps for kids”:

  1. Snapchat. {Bucket 1} A free photo/video sharing and messaging app where content disappears after it’s received. Age 12+, the filters and special effects are popular. Parents Beware: linked to sexting and harassment; kids also post more daring content believing it will disappear; human traffickers have lured kids through the platform; its “SnapMap” allows followers to see where you are in REAL time. The map is only disabled by placing your child in “ghost” mode. Noteworthy News: In October 2018, hackers retrieved thousands of "deleted" Snapchat images, kids need to realize images are never really gone. There are 186+ million daily users globally; 92 percent of US teens 12-17 years old and 94 percent of 18-24 year olds are on the platform.
  2. Kik Messenger. {Bucket 1} This free anonymous messaging app allows users to send and receive private messages bypassing the phone’s text messaging feature. Users don’t have to share phone numbers or real email addresses; users remain truly anonymous. Parents Beware: In 2016, Kik was called “the most dangerous” social media platform with many cases of missing children linked to connections made on Kik. The platform carries a great deal of promiscuous materials and has a “private, anonymous and underground tone.” Intentions of strangers you meet on a platform like this should be concerning. As of 2016, Kik claims to be used by 240 million people and about 40 percent of America's young people.  Noteworthy News: Kik has been linked to many missing children including the murder of a 13-year-old central Virginia student.
  3. Whisper. {Bucket 6} This online community focuses on unlimited, unrestrained, anonymous interactions. The intent behind Whisper is to spread rumors and secrets, share pictures and texts. Parents Beware: Teens come here to share their darkest secrets and “safely unburden themselves.” That said, Whisper uses GPS tracking to share those secrets with other users closest to your geographic location. A child who reveals too much will be blackmailed, bullied or targeted.
  4. Yik Yak. {Bucket 5} Uses GPS tracking to allow people to create and view discussion threads with others within a 5-mile radius. The app allows users to post text-only “Yaks” of up to 200 characters which can be viewed by 500 Yakkers who are physically closest to you. Parents Beware: GPS tracking on your child should scare you. Plus, do you want up to 500 strangers within a five-mile radius following your child’s online discussions and potentially using that again him/her? 
  5. Tinder. {Bucket 2} A free online dating app that uses GPS tracking to “rate” profiles and locate people within a 10-mile radius. If two people like each other, they can have a conversation through the app and potentially "hook up." Parents Beware: This is an 18+ dating app popular with teens. There is no real age verification process. Other similar dating related apps include: Blendr (2 million users) and Badoo (434 million users).
  6. WhatsApp. {Bucket 1} This free messaging app uses the phone’s internet connection to message, call, engage in group chats, share photos, voice messages and videos. There’s no username or password. It’s the communication of choice for criminal activity because the platform has end-to-end encryption ensuring that only you and the person you’re communicating with can reach what is sent, no one else, not even WhatsApp. It is estimated that over one billion people use the app, sending over 65 billion messages per day. Beware: Because of the number of users, security experts say WhatsApp is a breeding ground for cyber criminals, malware, shared information with Facebook and hackers. Additionally, the default setting of this platform shares your status publicly. Learn more about WhatsApp including how to make your status private here.   
  7. Voxer. {Bucket 1} Originally intended to be a walkie-talkie for teams at work, Voxer has turned into a platform that enables people to leave voice messages or have an immediate push-to-talk experience with others. Teens love the instant walkie-talkie feature; it also allows communication while bypassing your mobile service provider. Beware: Voxer is a widely-used platform for cyber bullying. While the age is 13+, there is no way to ensure this. The phone’s default setting is to “share location” and disable “privacy modes” on the phone. 
  8. ask.fm. {Bucket 4} With 215 million users, this Q&A platform allows anyone to post anonymous comments and questions to a person's profile. Beware: It is increasingly being used as a means to communicate abusive, bullying and sexualized content.
  9. Zepeto. {Bucket 1} With over 10 million users, this app is free but requires in-app purchases. Originally popular in Asia, it’s hit the US with great success. Teens turn their photos into Avatars (“much cuter” avatars) and start interacting with stranger Avatars in the Zepto world. The interactions (although between real people, often strangers) are called a “game” that kids love to play. Beware: this app requires microphone and camera, rumors have spread that this app “spies” on its users (this rumor is common but not confirmed); kids can log on with Facebook which instantly connects Zepeto to all their Facebook contacts. 
  10. Holla. {Buckets 1, 2 &5}. A live video chat and voice app that allows you to connect with strangers and see things and talk about things in real time. The chats are random as Holla connects you randomly with others. If you two like chatting live, you can move the conversation forward privately. Parents Beware: Strangers can scroll through and select your child for a chat. The app uses GPS location for tracking to find people nearby. According to reports, both nudity and violence are common on this app; users have made it very dangerous for teens. There is a Holla Prime version which allows more, for $9.99/month.
  11. 8chan. {Bucket 1} Is a social media pin board app that encourages open conversations from an anonymous community. Beware: Content ranges from pornography to popcorn. It has a dark undertone. The young man who killed 20 in El Paso Saturday had posted his manifesto on 8chan. 

Parents, What’s Your Family’s Game Plan?  

  1. Remember, there will always be the “next dangerous app” - the bigger issue is how will your child deal with these platforms? Do they understand the real dangers? It’s not really about the app but rather the connections, content and information they take in and share. 
  2. Be Honest. Share real stories in an age-appropriate manner. If your child is too young or not mature enough to handle a real story pertaining to the app they are using, they are not old enough to navigate the app. Period. 
  3. Help them understand who is really on the other side and that it’s always a big deal and very dangerous connecting with strangers. Remind them that “mutual connections” - no matter how many - in no way makes the connection safe. 
  4. Set Real Rules. Kids will be mindful and respectful while on the app. They will not engage with strangers. They will block users when necessary. They will share with you always. 
  5. Educate Yourself. Be on social media. Follow your kids. Do they have real and fake accounts? If you tell them to stay off social media, they will most likely create accounts and hide it from you. 
  6. Remind teens, “once on the internet, always on the internet.” Content is never really anonymous and never disappears.
  7. From time to time, search “new social media apps for teens” - review the list, be familiar with the names. Even if you don’t know everything they do, ask your teens. Let them know you are learning and watching. 

This task can be daunting but keeping our kids safe on social media is a real job that requires time, conversation and research. I hope this research was helpful but it’s up to each of us to have the conversation. 

Read past Sunday Mornings with Rania posts here. Find more information on Crime Stoppers of Houston on their website or follow them on Facebook. Have topics in mind that you’d like Rania to write about? Comment below or email her at rmankarious@crime-stoppers.org. Rania is co-host of a weekly podcast which features interesting local and national guests who used their platforms for the good of the community. Connect with Rania on Instagram and Twitter

Editor's Note: Views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Buzz Magazines.

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