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How safe are teen apps?

Guardian Technology 10 Feb 2019 09:00
Houseparty: brilliant for group chat but not immune to exploitation. Photograph: houseparty

Since 14-year-old Molly Russell killed herself in 2017, the apps and services our teenagers and children use – and their safety – have become a key concern for parents. Last week, the digital minister, Margot James, stated that “the tragic death of Molly Russell is the latest consequence of a social media world that behaves as if it is above the law”. James went on to announce plans to introduce a legally binding code and duty of care towards young users for social media companies.

Britain’s children are not just using the likes of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat on a daily basis. There is a wealth of apps targeted at teens and children that have their own ecosystems and controversies.

Houseparty

What is it?
In essence, a multi-person Skype or FaceTime video conversation. The screen – the app can be used on smartphones or laptops and desktops – is split into up to eight different tiles. It’s the preteen equivalent of a conference call, with participants talking over one another – a way for the day’s gossip to continue beyond the school gates.

How safe is it?
Kik’s anonymity makes it particularly problematic. Users can create accounts and groom children (or send explicit messages and images) without fear of being traced. “On Kik, people can’t be traced if they’re on it for nefarious reasons; that’s concerning, definitely,” says Nash. An investigation by the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) found that it was the seventh most recorded method used by child groomers last year (the first six were Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, text messages, WhatsApp and face-to-face conversation). And even if it’s not grownup users trying to communicate with children, there are still risks. The lack of an easily accessible digital trail makes it a boon for cyberbullies.

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