For kids and parents alike, school holiday time is all about freedom. Freedom from rules and routines. Freedom the tyranny of the clock and the uniform and the packed school lunch.
It can be a full-time job keeping up with the latest teen apps. Here's a cheat sheet on what's hot - and worrying - right now.
“Got [a] new app, Vora,” enthuses a pro-ana Instagram post alongside a screenshot of six consecutive days of 15-hour-fasts. (“Pro-ana”? That's shorthand for “promoting anorexia.”)
Vora is a fasting app that’s currently flavour-of-the-month for teen girls with eating disorders, and those who glamourise the life-threatening practice of “water fasting” — a fad diet in which followers consume nothing but water.
The app’s tagline - “Track Your Fasts with Friends” - pretty much says it all. A tracker plus social platform, Vora connects users to a community that celebrates and promotes “intermittent fasting” and eating disorders, cheering teens on to fast longer and to ever-more-dangerous extremes.
Vora isn’t the only “health and fitness app” young people are abusing. Others include MyFitnessPal, Eating Thin, Toilet Tracker, CalorieKing, Plant Nanny, Chronometer, and Carrot Fit (an app that verbally abuses dieters and “motivates” them by electrocuting an obese avatar when they fail to meet goals).
Age: 4+ (that’s not a typo)
Family Zone Rating: UNSAFE
After School is an app aimed at high school kids, which encourages users to post “confessions and compliments” anonymously. What could possibly go wrong?
CEO and co-creator Michael Callaghan insists the app was developed as a network “that teens could use to express themselves, to reach out to others and to ask for and offer help to fellow teens in distress.”
Somehow or other, it failed to achieve that lofty goal. In fact, far from easing distress, the app has become notorious for causing it.
After School is essentially a school-specific message board that lets users post text and photos anonymously. Shortly after its release, the app was removed from the App Store after complaints from school administrators about bullying. It has since been updated with moderation and tighter age-verification but concerns remain.
One problem with language moderation is that teen lingo is constantly shifting, and phrases and acronyms take on new meaning - for example, ‘KMS’, which stands for ‘kill myself,” and is now used sarcastically.
Family Zone Rating: BE CAREFUL
It’s a horror movie staple: the ordinary-looking bookcase that swings open to reveal a dank and scary dungeon. Well, sophisticated deception apps like Secret Calculator are the digital equivalent for many of today’s teens.
Secret Calculator looks for all the world like a standard-brand calculator. In a pinch, it can even function as one. But it’s real purpose is as a portal to a secret stash of x-rated photos, gifs, videos and urls. “In addition to hiding your sexts in any kind of media,” the developers explain, “the app offers the option to lock individual photos and albums.”
A passcode is required to open the vault - but parents beware. The user can set a decoy password which opens a 'guest' vault which can have decoy images - for the express purpose of reassuring mums and dads. The app can also be armed with pattern locks and touch IDs for maximum security.
Rating: BE CAREFUL
Described as “Skype for gamers,” Discord has become the hip way for gamers to chat about - what else? - gaming. And with 19 million daily users, it’s suddenly surging faster than Uber fares on a rainy night.
The Discord app - available for PCs, Macs and mobile devices - offers text messaging and voice and video chat. This allows gamers to confer live, mid-game, and has proved a boon for fans of team-based games like Fortnite Battle Royale, Overwatch and League of Legends.
But that functionality also brings dangers for younger users. Profanity and abusive language are standard on many Discord gaming servers.
What’s more, many players are discussing “mature” games - think sex, violence and drugs - and these themes will often feature in conversations.
Why? Because Discord is not an app that’s aimed at kids. Although anyone over 12 - or anyone who claims to be over 12 - can download it for free, first and foremost, Discord is a social networking tool that is geared toward adults.
Rating: BE CAREFUL
For more about Discord, check out our recent blog post here.
With more downloads than Snapchat, Spotify and Gmail combined, the popular lip-synching app formerly known as Musical.ly is now TikTok, following a buy-out and re-brand earlier this year. There are now 300 million more reasons for parents to worry.
Existing Musical.ly users were migrated overnight to their new TikTok accounts, which retains the core features of the original - basically, providing a platform for users to view, create and share their own 60-second music videos, lip-synching along to a wide variety of popular music styles.
With so much user-generated content being uploaded on a daily basis, TikTok is riddled with the same issues of quality control as YouTube. But unlike YouTube, there is no option for “SafeSearch” on this platform.
As a result, TikTok is rife with porn, images of self-harm and “attention-seeking ‘dares’ by kids putting themselves at risk to get likes and acceptance,” notes Family Zone cyber expert Martine Oglethorpe of The Modern Parent.
Rating: BE CAREFUL
For more about TikTok, check out our recent blog post here.
If your child is using one or more of these potentially risky apps, don’t panic. Remember, most of them can be used safely with the right limits and supervision. Talk to your child to find out how he or she is using it, and why.
And remember: intelligent use of parental controls can help every member of your family stay safe, happy and balanced in an online world. Learn more at familyzone.com - or start your free trial today.
One of today's most popular online games - Roblox - is also one of the most risky. Family Zone can help you manage those risks by setting boundaries, or blocking the app completely, without affecting other games.
Kids are passionate about Minecraft. And so too are many parents. Some rate it as the most creative and genuinely educational game a child can play. Others seem equally convinced Minecraft is the devil incarnate.