Parents and Educators: There is a new App to watch out for

As we embarked on the “back to school season” last fall, it was a 16 year old girl named Natalie Hampton from Sherman Oaks, California who was winning over the hearts of parents and educators alike for the launch of her free app “Sit With Us.” According to this LA Daily News article, the app was designed to help teens and tweens find a place to sit at lunch with peers who designated themselves as “ambassadors” by posting “open lunch” events on the app to signal to others that they were looking for some company. Hampton told the LA Daily News that she developed the app as a way to use social media to combat bullying, a problem she knew all too well. She stated, “I want to use social media, which can be harmful, and use it for a change and to do something good.” Hampton reported spending much of her seventh grade year eating lunch alone in the cafeteria, feeling a strong sense of embarrassment and vulnerability knowing that her peers took note of the fact that she had no one to sit with at lunch. She endured episodes of bullying at school, and this eventually led to depression and, in her case, hospitalization.

The arrival of Hampton’s Sit With Us for parents and educators went a long way towards restoring faith in technology and social media as “not all bad.” Indeed, Google Play’s description of the app shows this promise for the app’s ability to provide for a better tomorrow: “Sit With Us is a social networking app designed to promote kindness and inclusion in schools.” Don’t we all want that? It may seem too good to be true, and perhaps it is. For every app that seemingly takes our society one step forward, there seems to be another app that threatens to take us one step back, if not more.

As we embark on this “Back to School” season, the social media app that is garnering the latest buzz and spike in popularity is Sarahah, an app which allows users to send anonymous messages to their friends and contacts through facebook. That doesn’t sound suspicious at all, does it? According to its own promotional website, the app allows users to get honest feedback from coworkers and friends. The makers of the app go on to promise users that at work, this feedback can be used to “enhance your areas of strength and identify areas for improvement.”  and with friends, “improve your friendship by discovering your strengths and areas for improvement” and ultimately “let your friends be honest with you.” I call shenanigans.

Adweek’s Brandy Shaul reports that due to its ability for users to share their app profile links on popular social media networks like Snapchat, it didn’t take long for the app, which launched in June, to become the number one free app download on iTunes. Android users have downloaded it at a similar rate. These are dangerous statistics, because the downloads are not coming from people seeking honest feedback from friends and co-workers. The app is a cause for concern because of its ability to make it easier for teens and adults to hide behind a veil of anonymity and bully others. Business Insider UK’s Avery Hartmans made exactly this claim in a recent article, noting that some App Store reviewers have gone so far to describe it as a “breeding ground for hate.”

Sarahah is not the first app of this kind. As Hartmans reported, just two years prior, it was the app Yik Yak that was making headlines after many of its users faced criminal charges for posts they made on the site, which eventually shut down earlier this year. Perhaps that is the most discouraging thing to take away from this article - that when one bad app is shut down, there is always going to be another to take its place.

The bigger social issue at stake in all of this is the concern for how social media and technology in general are changing the social patterns of our children, and perhaps not for the good. This week the Atlantic’s Jean Twenge took a deep dive into this topic in an article entitled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge spoke at length about the dangers associated with teens spending more time laying on their bed on their devices and less time physically interacting with their friends and family members. She went on to quote many staggering statistics for teenage depression and suicide that, many could argue, correlate to the changing social patterns of teens as a result of increased reliance on technology and a reduction of social interaction time. Twenge raised some of the same questions and concerns that I did in a March 2017 Multibrief Exclusive article, when I asked whether or not too much technology was bad for kids. In essence, the reliance that teens place on their devices is akin to an addiction. Their device is never beyond arm’s reach, at all hours of the day and night. It is not healthy.

So, given all of this information, what can parents do? In my March MultiBriefs article I answered this question by quoting a Digital Trends article that provides parents with four possible suggestions:
  • Talk to your children about the importance and need for time restrictions on devices
  • Set rules for time restrictions, and follow through on them
  • Encourage outside activities that naturally take children away from their devices
  • Make use of an app that can set limits on devices. Two such apps that work on both Apple and Android platforms are Kidslox and Mobile Guardian.
I would simply say, be an observant parent. Know the signs that your child may be in trouble. Have they become more irritable? Are they spending more time alone in their room? Do they seem more stressed? Talk to your child, and perhaps more importantly, be noisy. Don’t let them take their device to bed and after they go to bed, check it for any concerning behavior, or questionable downloads (like Sarahah). Now more than ever, our children need proactive, not reactive parents. I’ll be taking my own advice tonight and checking my boys’ devices for these things.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.


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