Popularized by Snapchat, disappearing message apps are flooding online stores and becoming increasingly popular with users of all ages. Social media is an undeniable part of the social lives of young people, where they interact with their friends and peers in real time through the web. Parental control apps, like the ones we’ve reviewed before, have become increasingly popular among parents, but thanks to disappearing message apps, teens are finding loopholes that keep their interactions “off-book”, so to speak, and away from the prying eyes of their digitally involved parents.
Apps such as Snapchat, Confide, Cyber Dust, Ansa, Slingshot and many others, all provide a means of interacting online without any apparent evidence being left behind on the user’s device. This phenomenon poses a problem for parents who want to be sure their kids are using technology responsibly since messages and other related data are stored on private company servers and not accessible to parents. When researching these apps I’ve seen them positioned as effective tools for businesses. Perhaps they could be. For kids and teens however, here’s a few of my top concerns, and what you need to know:
1. SnapChat blatantly lied to users about deleting messages. When I shared this with my teenage son, he said: “Jokes on us isn’t it?” He’s right. Teens believed their messages were private when they weren’t. Snapchat was ultimately fined by the FTC for deceptive practices.
2. The main selling point for disappearing apps is to ensure the user’s privacy, but if your child is willing to lie to you to be able to keep you from knowing what they are up to, that’s a red flag. We know as parents that trust is earned by our children. However, when they’re actively trying to hide something from you they whittle away at the trust they’re building and that’s not constructive, but an indicator of concerning behavior.
3. The marketing pitch of these apps encourages users of all ages to engage in behavior that is simply wrong. Whether it’s lying, cheating, spreading false rumors, or being cruel and unkind. Take a look at their advertising in the app store:
“Disappearing Messages, Say Whatever You Want”
“Delete by Default, Keep what you want; we’ll get rid of everything else.”
“Easily go ‘off the record’ to communicate without leaving a record behind.”
Many of these disappearing message apps don’t prevent users from screenshotting messages and images. This means if your child has chosen to send an inappropriate picture or message it can be saved and shared with others. This underscores the message our children need to hear: “Nothing goes away on the Internet. Think before you post.” And as we’ve written about before, content shared that shouldn’t have been can have devastating consequences.
If you’re concerned your child or teen has one of these disappearing messaging apps, ask them, and take a look at their phone. As with any app downloaded on a device, these apps will require an icon on the device’s screen in order to be used. A simple review of your child’s downloaded apps and a look at their devices’ home screens/folders will reveal whether or not they are using any disappearing messaging apps. As a parent, here’s what I recommend you do:
1. Talk with your kids about appropriate mobile phone use.
2. Come to an agreement, verbally, or in writing, about the use of these apps. Depending on your child’s age, there are even a number of parental controls apps that regulate the amount of time your child can use certain apps, if that’s the agreement you and your child come to.
3. Depending on how your iTunes or Google Play accounts are set up, sync your child’s phone to your account.
4. Do updates once a month. You’ll get a record of apps they’ve downloaded.
5. Tap through the home screen and open folders. As one young 11-year-old told us, she hid apps she knew she wasn’t supposed to use in the “Education” folder on her device.
Although these apps might be a fun way to interact with friends and share updates and pictures, it requires a degree of maturity and exemplary digital citizenship to learn what is appropriate. Teaching kids to use social media and messaging apps appropriately, and setting an example of your own, is essential to halting the inappropriate use of these apps and other social networks.