WhatsApp, Kik, Yik Yak, Viber, Snapchat, Omegle, Oovoo, Whisper.

If these names aren’t familiar to you, ask your teenager. Though they’re not as popular with older users, many of these apps are rapidly growing in popularity among high school and college students. And these (and literally hundreds of other apps) all have something in common. They’re all messaging apps.

What’s the Deal With All These Messaging Apps?

Even Facebook has admitted that teens are migrating away from the network en masse, moving on to other social media and messaging apps, many of which offer something Facebook doesn’t: the illusion of privacy. With more and more parents (and grandparents) on Facebook, teens are switching to new apps and networks away from prying eyes and mom and dad’s “likes” and comments.

But doesn’t every phone come with built-in messaging? What’s the appeal of all these other messaging apps?

Messaging apps generally are designed to replace text messaging. Some apps, like WhatsApp, Viber, Oovoo, and others are used primarily as a way to text and call for free, even internationally. These apps use your data plan or a WiFi signal to send and receive messages for free, rather than using your SMS plan or paying fees for international messaging.

Other users choose messaging apps as a way to keep conversations private. Apps like Snapchat attract users with the promise of “disappearing” messages. Others offer the ability to communicate with people nearby, manage group conversations or send anonymous messages to strangers.

The purpose of anonymous chatting app Omegle, for instance, is explained by the app’s tagline: “talk to strangers.” Though one section of the app warns users to “keep it clean and friendly!” there’s no guarantee that users will, and nothing to stop kids from visiting the 18+ unmoderated section instead.

The app Whisper, on the other hand, asks users to anonymously confess their secrets and shows you others’ confessions. As you can probably guess, things can get decidedly ugly, with bullying, racism, homophobia, and other abuse rampant in the confessions.

As you can see, while some features of these messaging apps could be genuinely helpful, for international travelers, people with family in other countries, or teens who might go over their plans’ text and call limits, other features are very troubling for parents, and may facilitate sexting, bullying, abuse and other disturbing content.

Below we’ll give you a rundown on three of the most popular apps among teens: WhatsApp, Kik, and Yik Yak, and what parents should know about them.

WhatsApp

In 2013, WhatsApp surpassed Facebook as the most popular messaging service worldwide. It’s the most straight-forward of the messaging apps we’ll cover here, and the most popular. WhatsApp allows users to send unlimited text messages, videos, photos, and audio messages to as many people as they want, without fees (for the first year, after which, it’s $0.99/year.)

This is useful for international messaging, as well as for avid texters who are likely to go over their phone plan’s messaging limit. Of course, the app is only useful if your friends are also on WhatsApp, as you can’t send messages to others who aren’t using it.

It should be noted that WhatsApp’s license agreement requires users to be at least 16 years old. But for teens who are old enough to use the app, and responsible enough to do so safely, it could be a decent option, especially if parents are concerned about paying a premium for their kids’ messaging habits.

Kik

Another alternative to texting, Kik includes the ability to send texts and photos, and offers related apps that offer sketchpad and video features. There are no message or character limits, and no fees for the basic app. Privacy is a big concern however, as users can send and receive messages from people they are not friends with. Kik uses usernames, not phone numbers to identify users, so anyone who knows your username can send you messages. This feature makes it popular on networks like Instagram, where you will often see users sharing their Kik usernames and inviting others to message them. Although Kik’s Terms of Service prohibits spam, nudity, pornography, violence, discrimination, and other inappropriate content, the app remains popular for sexting and sharing these types of messages.

Additionally, the app includes a password feature, allowing users to prevent parents and others from seeing their activity in the app. There are some privacy features which allow users to block strangers and spammers from sending messages, however these features need to be enabled. All in all, Kik can be a fun alternative to text messaging when it’s used only with friends and only if teens can be trusted not to share content they shouldn’t, but some features could be problematic.

Kik says that users under 13 are prohibited from using the app and that teens 13-18 need a parent’s permission to create an account. The company does provide a helpful guide for parents with tips on helping your teen use the app responsibly. If your teen uses Kik or would like to, a careful review of the Kik parent guide is highly recommended.

Yik Yak

The newest and most problematic of the three we’re covering here, Yik Yak is a messaging app that uses a phone’s GPS functionality, allowing users to send, view, and vote on messages anonymously within a ten mile radius. It is particularly popular on college and high school campuses. But because it’s anonymous, and highly localized, messages on the app are often hateful and explicit, and may target specific individuals. Bullying is a major problem on the app, leading several schools to ban it, and in one school, comments and bullying on the app led administrators to ban smartphones entirely.

Yik Yak’s creators say the app was intended for college campuses, and to their credit, they have taken steps to prevent similar events from occurring. They changed the app’s rating to 17+, which is a good initial step, but only works if parental restrictions have been enabled on the device.

They’ve also installed “geofences” around middle and high schools across the country, blocking users from using the app near schools. The bottom line? Yik Yak is not for kids and while these steps can help, kids are good at finding ways around these restrictions, and not all schools in the country have been blocked.

Yes, parental restrictions and software to monitor kids’ activity are options. But what’s most important in terms of these and other social networking apps is trust and communication between parents and teens. Teach kids about the importance of thinking long-term about their digital footprint, set rules and guidelines for media use, and keep the lines of communication open.

Do you or your kids use any of these apps? How do you decide which apps to let your kids use? Tell us your experience in the comments.


Featured Image – Yik Yak

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