Apps to watch as kids return to school

February 2, 2018 ACSA Writer

With thanks to ACSA partner AALRR Law Corporation’s
EdLawConnect blog post by Cathie Fields, Amy Estrada

Every day, students arrive at school with smartphones in their pockets or backpacks that are loaded with apps that can create headaches for parents, teachers, and administrators. Some apps allow kids to hide images and data, and even the existence of the apps themselves. Many apps cost nothing and require no age verification (or verification via a simple check mark). Depending on their content and design, some apps can cause disruptions at school. Others can be downright dangerous.

 Statista reports that 73% of people from 13-24 use Instagram. Despite Snapchat's dominance, Facebook continues to be 2017’s most popular social media and networking site used by teens and young adults. 76% of the Statista respondents reported using Facebook. However:

“Teens, whose average age was 16, rated their most important social network, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter where given more important ratings than Facebook. These social networks are being increasingly visited via mobile devices. 93% of teens ages 15-17 have mobile access to the internet through a phone or other device. In North America, young adults and teenagers aged 16-24 spend the most time online via mobile, more than any other age group, spending nearly 200 minutes per day on a mobile device. Teen and Millennial age groups now spend almost as much time on mobile devices as they do on a PC/laptop/tablet.”

 Given users’ ability to limit the duration of messages, apps like Burn Note and Snapchat remain common platforms for sexting and cyber-bullying that cannot be tracked. In June 2017, Snapchat added a “Snap Map” feature that allows users to view other users’ locations on a real map. To alleviate the obvious safety concerns this new feature presents, “Snap Map” sharing settings can be adjusted to “Ghost Mode” to conceal the user’s location; however, this feature must be affirmatively selected by the user. Twitter, with its 140-character maximum, provides a virtually uncontrolled space for pornography, cyberbullying, and “trolling.” Instagram, where users share photos and videos, can easily be used for inappropriate images. Meanwhile, the free chat site Omegle offers to let users meet strangers on the Internet. Chats take place anonymously with a stranger, and can include videos, many of which depict nudity.

The app “After School” describes itself as a “private space for you and your school” where users can post anonymously or using their names, and “find fun stuff” or “embarrassing stories” about their friends. House Party, launched in 2016, has more than 1 million users, mostly teens. It allows the user to chat with up to eight people at once via a split screen feature to create a party-like atmosphere. Like most of these apps, House Party has no age verification process and permits spontaneous video chats with strangers.

 Apps that allow anonymity tend to encourage bad behavior and bullying by freeing users from the fear of consequences from peers or adults. Many of these trendy apps spike in popularity and then just as quickly meet their demise. Yik Yak, the 5-mile radius app popular with college students, was once valued at $400 million but shut down in April 2017. It had been banned from many schools because of rampant cyber abuse and harassment. Similar apps like Vine, Formspring, and Secret have also shut down in recent years.

 Worryingly, dating apps intended for adults are increasingly popular with teens. Tinder estimates about 7% of its users are age 13 to 17. The Down app offers a “secret way” to “hook up” with other users nearby. Hot or Not (where males rate users based on posted photos) purports to be limited to users 13 or older and claims that users from 13 to 17 cannot chat or share images with older users, but the app has no means of verifying age.

Keeping up with the latest apps and preventing inappropriate use by students poses ongoing challenges in the digital age. Teachers and school officials must remain vigilant to protect students, even as enforcement becomes more difficult. They also need to consider applicable school rules and privacy considerations before searching or confiscating a student’s smartphone or other device. If a device is believed to contain child pornography, a prudent approach is to notify law enforcement. Schools should communicate with legal counsel in any questionable situations.

For further reading about risky apps and even apps that are designed to look more inconspicuous than they are (like a calculator), check out this article.

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