But for safety conscious parents, there are a lot of things not to like.
Parents who have been clinging to the “don’t talk to strangers” mantra when guiding teen online behavior have another obstacle to deal with. I was reading about the new iOS app Swapmees today and naturally I was interested in learning more. The app bills itself as “the largest social network just for teens”.
The app, according to the creators, is only for teens aged 13 – 19 and is both a network and a game. The way it works is that teens start an account with a bio and up to 5 selfies. The selfies are made into virtual trading cards that are both a user’s currency and the basis of the game. Players can acquire another user’s card if it is not in use, or by trading for it, if that user is someone they want to “chat” with. The funny this is, the idea of online strangers “trading” for your son or daughter is not the worst part of the game/app in our opinion. Read on.
I decided to sign up, posing as my teenage son, who really is a 16-year-old boy, and will walk you through what I saw ( I didn’t really pose as him; I used one of his pics). As a parent, I can tell you that this does not look safe or wholesome. It could be OK under perfectly controlled conditions (no strangers, no meeting in real life…) but we’re very concerned about the downside. What we don’t like about Swapmees:
Age/sex required – At signup, the following info is required: user name, email address, age and sex. Clearly the app is focused on flirting and hooking up if you can’t join without providing your age and sex. There’s nothing wrong with flirting, but there’s no way I want my teens doing it online with strangers.
No age gate – There is no age verification mechanism at all. I said I was 16 (I’m 40-something) and signed up with no problem. It’s hard to imagine an easier way for a sexual predator to infiltrate a group of teens posing as one of them.
Location – After signup, most users fill out the rest of their bio, which ask for (not required) hometown and school. Many users have posted what looks like real location information, an obvious risk. “Hey predators, I’m 15 years old, Iive in X, I go to school at Y, here are 5 cute pics of me and since I signed up for this app you know that is interested in chatting/flirting.” What could go wrong?
You can post anyone’s pictures to Facebook – What a terrible feature this is. Even though they don’t tell you at signup, any picture that you post can be posted to any other user’s Facebook timeline with 2 clicks, without your permission or knowledge. And the pic displays the user name, age and sex. Dreadful.
Rating – According to the App Store, the rating is 12+ because of frequent profanity, mild sexual content or nudity, and alcohol, drug and tobacco references.
Reporting problems – The main menu does have an easy-to-find “Report a concern” option, but the reporting itself is not in-app; users have to go outside the app and send an email.
It’s now been about 12 hours since I signed up and two teens (are they?), have grabbed one of my cards, indicating that they want to chat. One has pinged me so far with a “Hey”.
I’m going to delete the account now, but parents should be forewarned – you need to pay attention to what apps your teen is using, and why they’re using them. Often their phone and not their computer is where the action is.
The number of ways that strangers – potential predators – can access teens is growing steadily, but there is no foolproof method for keeping your teen safe without his or her buy-in. After they reach a certain age and level of computer literacy, a parent can’t “do” internet safety. Kids can get around almost any roadblock you put in place. You need to help your teens keep themselves safe, by paying attention and guiding, coaching, cajoling – whatever it takes.
We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below, or from the folks at Swapmees if we’ve gotten anything wrong.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring teen internet activity.