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What Parents and Grandparents Need to Know about the Perils of Ever-Changing Apps

Data sharing among teens, via app companies creates a new level of risk

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In talking to teenagers about their virtual lives, you’ll frequently hear the phrase, “Strict parents create sneaky kids.”

Kids face real dangers to their privacy online, so parents and grandparents have reason for concern. Stranger danger isn't something kids face only when they go outside today. It's something every child with a smartphone holds in the palm of their hand, 24/7.

So what do parents need to know about online threats? And what should they do in a world where teens spend more time on the photo- and video-sharing apps Instagram and Tiktok, an app for sharing short videos in a vertical format, than they do with their families? With new apps and social networks cropping up all the time, how can a parent or grandparent keep up?

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The first step is for parents to understand the dangers. Cyberbullying in the form of subtle indirect references that mock but don't specifically name their target, called subtweets on the social media site Twitter, can lead to depression and, in tragic cases, suicide.

Sharing too much personal information can lead to stalking or even put teens at risk of prosecution when using apps related to reproductive health in a post Roe v. Wade environment. And regulations are thin or nonexistent on sharing personal information for profit.

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Teenagers' digital behavior may affect them later in life when getting into college, getting a loan or getting a job. The New York Times hired and then fired a columnist because of tweets, short messages on Twitter, that she had posted years in the past. But often applicants are rejected outright based on digital records they are completely unaware of.  

Data collection is legal, not well regulated

In elementary and middle school, most children have had some education about online safety, thanks to the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act that became law in 2008. Kids are cognizant of the threat of hackers and scammers — certainly more so than adults 50 and older.

“But things are more dangerous now because we have a surveillance economy of apps that collect information,” says Jason Kelly, associate director of digital strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The nonprofit consumer advocacy group, founded in 1990, is based in San Francisco.

Personal data, including birth dates, location history, religion and school information, can be collected legally and sold and shared with other companies, Kelly says. “And that information is not really protected in any way.”

The solution for some concerned parents is to try to monitor their children's online lives to make sure they're not oversharing. But that can create a false sense of security. If you follow their social media accounts, such as Instagram, they'll know and may simply set up a false account, known as a Finsta, Kelly says.

Social media is far more than Facebook

Insisting that your kids become your Facebook friends also won't do. Teens today don't really use Facebook.

As of July 2022, users 13 to 17 represented 4.4 percent of Facebook’s total U.S. audience with more than a third age 45 or older, according to Warsaw-based NapoleonCat, a social media marketing tool. Earlier this year, more than two-thirds of 13- to 17-year-olds told Washington-based Pew Research Center pollsters that they never use Facebook.

Even if your kids do allow you to friend them, they can prevent you from seeing their posts in the same way that you can filter what your Facebook friends see. And they may be more expert at managing their privacy settings than you are.

“Things are more dangerous now because we have a surveillance economy of apps that collect information.”

— Jason Kelly, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Some parents insist on having access to their children's smartphones so they can check their activity. However, the youngest generations — unlike baby boomers, Generation X and even millennials — grew up online. Generation Z, born from 1997 to 2012, according to Pew Research, is more sophisticated about using technology to thwart spot checks.

One example: Decoy apps, disguised to look like other programs such as calculators, are commonly used to hide other apps, photos, texts and videos inside password-protected “vaults,” most often on the smartphone itself. Moreover, if you’ve installed monitoring software to prevent your teens from downloading a particular app or material inappropriate for their age, a decoy app can hide it from the software and your view but let your kids see the files any time they want.

Stranger danger and privacy threats aren’t lurking around every corner. Gen Z users are also adept at leveraging the good of social networking and smartphone apps:

• Kids with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, find critical support systems on Instagram, sometimes in educating others and challenging assumptions or by just ranting about the daily frustrations of blood testing and insulin. Sometimes being on Insta, what users often call the app, means they can be in a place where no one knows about their condition because they’ve created two profiles.

• Students whose study groups disbanded during the pandemic reconstructed them on Discord, an app originally created to bring social media to multiplayer gaming. The local groups continue and bigger national study groups are on the platform, helped because the app’s strength is its ability to allow chat through audio, text and video, and share a computer screen.

• The free teleconferencing app Zoom became the platform for a new group, Teens Teach Technology, founded two months after coronavirus lockdowns began. Asmita Mittal, a high school sophomore at the time, started the original chapter on Long Island, New York. It has expanded to 18 states and seven countries in a little more than two years. High school volunteers teach classes on creating social media, Doordash and Netflix accounts in addition to showing older adults how to spot scam emails and calls.

Communication vs. surveillance

The solution to a healthier relationship with apps and the internet for your kids isn’t parental cyberstalking. A better approach is to have “the conversation,” a discussion not about the birds and bees but about their personal data and the dangers to it that are constantly evolving.

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Teen drama, previously immortalized in coming-of-age movies, now often plays out on the small screen of smartphones. That can create emotionally charged situations different from your teenage years.

A teen permitted to access a friend’s private Snapchat story may consider it a signal that she’s becoming part of the popular crowd. In contrast, discovering that she’s been excluded from a Close Friends list on Instagram, even though she remains a more public Friend, can create resentment or insecurity among real-life friends.

The issue of how personal, very private information is collected is a generalized threat, Kelly says. Apple's Find My tool is commonly used to find an iPhone, but teens also use it to share their location continually with friends.

Where Apple is blazing trails, teens are likely to follow. A Feb. 22-March 22 survey of more than 7,000 U.S. teens with an average age of about 16 shows that 87 percent own an iPhone and expect their next phone to be an iPhone, according to Piper Sandler, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based investment banking firm.

A raft of other apps from food delivery to ride-hailing that teens use habitually employ location tracking. Apps such as Snapchat for text, photo and video sharing and Life360, which bills itself as a family social networking app, also have real-time location-sharing features. Snapchat’s content, called Snaps, is designed to vanish after it’s been viewed, but it can be saved.

“We found departments of transportation are purchasing location data from some of these sources,” the EFF's Kelly says. It's completely legal, but do you really want the government holding information on where your teen driver was for the past three months? 

10 apps that teens were quizzed on, ranked

Percentage 13- to 17-year-olds who told researchers whether they ever had used any of the following 10 apps or sites:

spinner image pew research results social media apps used by teens

Note: Survey of 1,315 U.S. teens conducted April 14 to May 4, 2022

Apps are numerous, have drawbacks

The popularity of social media apps among teens can be fleeting. There’s no cool clearinghouse, no Creem or Rolling Stone magazine to check out. Instead, apps gain popularity passing from one friend to another via internet links until one makes it big on the messaging app WhatsApp or Tiktok.

For that reason, studies like the one that Pew Research conducted in April and May — even though pollsters talked to more than 1,300 teens — can’t capture what apps might soon become your greatest concern. They asked about teens’ use of 10 apps but didn’t offer an open-ended question to allow the survey participants to talk about other apps they’re spending time with.

To give you an idea of the sheer number of apps that have qualified for the Apple App and Google Play stores, Appfigures, a reporting platform for mobile app developers, stops at about 500 free apps each on both platforms in its publicly available reports. Developers decide their app’s primary category.

As of mid-2022, Apple had nearly 2 million and Google 2.7 million apps in their app stores, software that complies with those companies’ policies. Most can be downloaded for free. A sampling of some apps targeted to teens follows:

Anonymous messaging apps

In the name of “honesty,” many of these apps say they offer the ability to give and get feedback from friends, who might stay mum if their names were attached. But several anonymous messaging apps through the years — After School, LMK (Let Me Know), Sarahah, Yolo — have been removed from or quietly left the two largest app stores because of controversies involving bullying, including death threats and a lawsuit from an Oregon mom whose daughter committed suicide.

• NGL, which stands for Not Gonna Lie, is among the newest messaging apps that don’t require users’ real names. It allows users to create an inbox for anonymous questions with a link designed to be shared on other social media accounts, such as Instagram. It debuted in November and already is ranked at No. 8 among free apps in Apple’s Lifestyle category and No. 24 on Google’s Social list.

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• Sendit, No. 15 in Apple’s Social Networking category, calls itself a platform to play augmented reality games with friends on Instagram, but it, too, is an anonymous messaging app. A recipient doesn’t know a sender’s identity and is able to block that person; SendIt says it knows a sender’s real name. 

• Tellonym debuted in 2016 in Germany, old by teen app standards. But AppBrain, which tracks data on Android apps, says it has been installed on more than 10 million Android phones, and SensorTower, which also tracks app metrics, says it had 240,000 Apple Store downloads in July.

Tellonym users create a profile to share with friends, who then can message their opinions anonymously in a “tell.” After two schools in Great Britain warned parents about inappropriate postings and photos in 2018, Common Sense Media in the U.S. called it an “anonymous messenger ripe for cyberbullying, hurt feelings.” 

Dating apps

Before parents realize it — and seemingly at ever-younger ages — teens start using dating apps. These apps are supposed to be age restricted, but the digital barriers can be easily circumvented.

Users of the apps not only can put pressure on teens sexually but also can pose a risk to their safety. And the companies that created many of these apps have been lax about privacy. In 2020, a survey found that 10 dating apps collected personal information, including drug use, location, religious beliefs and sexual orientation, and then shared that data with 135 companies. These apps are among the most downloaded.

• Bumble requires women to act first when a match is made. Within the same app, it also offers Bumble BFF to meet new friends and Bumble Bizz for professional networking.

• Grindr calls itself the world’s largest social networking app for gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. It allows members to find one another and start a conversation based on who’s nearby, as determined by the location of the phone. 

• Hinge wants details to be a part of the dating profile so it can suggest better prospective matches. Users are allowed eight free Likes a day and those who receive a Like can then view that person’s full profile and potentially decide to Like the person back. 

• Tinder uses location data to serve up photos of potential matches. Users swipe right to like a profile and swipe left to continue. If two people swipe right on one another, they’ll be allowed to message each other. 

Decoy apps

Teens may use decoy apps to prevent snoops from seeing personal conversations, contacts, photos, videos or web searches. The apps can prevent strangers from seeing images and block parents who might ask for the pass code or password of their teen’s phone as a condition of use.

Some apps that hide photos behind a second password will make noise or take photos of the person who tries to get in or fake a crash of the app or phone. Think you can ask for the second password? Some apps will display a decoy gallery of photos that the teen saved just in case you figured it out. Another, real password opens the files the teen wants to keep hidden.

• Calculator decoys. Calculator# for iPhones, Calculator Vault and DoubleApp for Androids are among several apps that function like a calculator until the unlock code is entered. 

• Hide Photos Video - Hide it Pro hides itself behind an icon titled Audio Manager. 

• Keepsafe takes a secret photo of the person who tries to access the app with an incorrect personal identification number. A blog entry from two years ago mentions one reason: “Now you can take your nudes without risk.” 

Location sharing apps

Classmates often use Apple’s Find My tool to keep in touch, but other methods are available if not every friend is in the iPhone club.

• Find My. The Apple-only app already on your iPhone merges the old Find My iPhone and Find My Friends apps into one location tracker. Apple devices, items with AirTags attached and Find My-enabled Bluetooth items can be traced on a map, but so can friends and family who are sharing their location.

Parents need to know their children's close friends in real life, especially if they are sharing location information with them. Some kids may be willing to allow you to use the feature to track their location if you're willing to share your location, too. Google’s Find My Device isn’t similar.

• Google Maps. The blue dot that you see when you’re in the popular map app, your real-time location, can be shared with friends and family when you sign on to your Google account, no matter whether the device is Android or Apple.

• Life360, among the top 10 apps on Apple’s Social Networking and Google’s Lifestyle lists, tracks location data even while the app is closed.

• Snapchat’s Snap Map, a feature that is off by default in the Snapchat app, can pinpoint a person’s location for friends near and far when enabled.

Other social media

Even before the pandemic isolated students into little Zoom grids reminiscent of The Brady Bunch, teens reached out to one another on social media.

• BeReal, No. 1 on Apple’s Social Networking and No. 6 on Google’s Social apps, is a relative newcomer to the social networking scene, released in 2020. It puts a new spin on Instagram by asking users to post regular, live pictures wherever they are and of whatever they’re doing when prompted.

The idea is to be spontaneous and personal. But sharing your current activities with friends can be annoying — and risky.

• Discord has grown from its initial user base of gamers to encompass other interests. Small groups of people with similar interests talk regularly on what the app calls servers, and a server has both a text and a voice channel. Student Hubs, available with an official student email, allow teens to access servers with other verified students from their school.

• weBelong, which calls itself inclusive social media for misfits in the app stores, debuted in January 2021. It has had about 40,000 downloads on Google Play, according to AppBrain; figures for the Apple App Store weren’t publicly available. It does not show the number of likes on posts, nor the number of friends a user has, to keep everyone from comparing themselves to others.

John R. Quain is a contributing writer who covers personal technology, vehicle technology and privacy issues. His work also appears in The New York Times and PC Magazine and on CBS News. 

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