Currently browsing online bullying posts

Hidden in Plain Sight: a Parent’s Guide to Teen Texting

One of the most common things that kids do with technology is send text messages. Even as far back as 2010, Pew Research reported that 72% of teens engaged in texting. And while some parents may review the messages sent on their kids’ phones, it’s all too easy to avoid leaving incriminating messages behind. One of the trickiest ways that they do this is by using “secret code words” that are really everyday words, but with hidden meanings. These messages look completely harmless, but have a darker meaning that is usually only known by teens.

One of the earliest ways that teens texted in code was using Leetspeak, a method of using similar looking letters and numbers. This is still used widely in social media apps to try to avoid online monitors, both human and automated, from identifying inappropriate words. For example:

The downside to this approach is that if someone happens to be looking over their shoulder and sees text like that, their mind notices it and it could cause them to ask questions that the teens don’t want to answer. By using everyday words with a meaning known only to them, the teens are less likely to bring unwanted attention to themselves.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Before you continue with this, please know that some of the examples I’m about to use may be uncomfortable for parents to read. Also know that my examples aren’t mean to imply that these words/phrases are always used in this way. Sometimes, when a teen says that they want pizza, it means nothing more than a visit to a local pizza shop is imminent.

Below are some of the examples of code words using by teens, with their explanation and an example of how it might be used:

BOB: An acronym for Battery Operated Boyfriend.
Example: She’s been spending a lot of time with BOB lately.

Bunny: An abbreviated form of a “Rope Bunny” – someone who likes being tied up.
Example: I’ve been hoping to find a cute bunny lately, but no such luck!

Chocolate: A black person.
Example: I’ve been craving chocolate a lot lately!

Headache: When a person, usually a male, is aroused and looking for sex.
Example: Man, I wish that I could do something about this headache. It just won’t go away.

Little: A person who pretends to be much younger than they are chronologically. The difference can be years or even decades. This person is often in search of someone who is looking to take care of them (not always sexually).
Example: I woke up feeling very little today.

Mary Jane: Another word for marijuana. Also known as MJ.
Example: Has anyone seen MJ lately? I’m looking for her.

Pet: A person who likes to be cared for, often in a submissive role.
Example: I’m looking for the perfect pet. Anyone? [Done in a chat room]

Pizza: A euphemism for sex. The idea is that there is no such thing as bad pizza and there is no such thing as bad sex.
Example: I really need to get some pizza today!

Smash: To have casual sex.
Example: Whenever I see him, I just want to smash him.

Your Turn

Below are three possible texts that have very different meanings compared to what they appear to be. Also included are multiple choice answers with their real meanings indicated afterwards.

Self-Test #1: I absolutely love corn, no matter how it’s done.

  1. Male genitalia.
  2. Pornography
  3. Something without alcohol.

Self-Test #2: Turtles are my favorite pet. Who doesn’t love them?

  1. A shy, introverted person.
  2. A person with a tough shell (personality).
  3. A person who will spend a lot of time on their pack (having sex).

Self-Test #3: I’d really love some spaghetti right about now.

  1. Someone who is straight when dry (sober), but gay when wet (drunk or high).
  2. Someone without a backbone – an easy pushover.
  3. A person of Italian ancestry.

Answers to Self-Tests #1:B. #2: C, #3: A

Takeaway

It can be very difficult to decode such messages because they look so innocent. And many times, they are innocent. It may take seeing several exchanges to finally understand the true nature of what’s being said between the people. The most likely place parents should watch out for these kinds of code words is on social media apps like Whisper or in a chat room.

My best advice is to confirm the intent by looking at an ongoing exchange, rather than after seeing only one possible coded message. The next is to focus more on educating them on the potential dangers involved with sexting, including sextortion and revenge porn. This video shows the potential consequences of sexting when images are included. It shows just how quickly and easily the images can go viral, being seen by many people, perhaps even by the original sender’s friends and family.

Once such images are distributed, getting them removed from the Internet is virtually impossible. It’s one reason why I say that when it comes to technology problems like sexting, an ounce of prevention isn’t worth a pound of cure, but an immeasurable amount of cure. And like any other activity that teens may do with technology, parents can teach their children a better way with patience and by keeping informed on what the risks are to their children.

What Happens at Home CAN Cause Problems at School

Can your child get into trouble at school for what they do online at home?

While the answer to that question depends on where you live, the most likely answer to this is that a school can discipline a student for off-campus activities in some cases. The majority of U.S. states allow for it, reports the Cyberbullying Research Center. The rationale for this is for when activities off-campus negatively effect on-campus life beyond a reasonable amount.

That means that when a student engages in inappropriate behavior online, such as bullying a student or sending out racy images of another student, the school may have the right to take disciplinary action. While students (and parents) may argue that their actions don’t fall under the school’s province, the courts have decided otherwise.

And this is not just limited to actions taken by students. The same rules apply to staff/faculty as well. In my own county, a teacher was fired for comments made on her blog under an assumed identity that was derogatory towards her students. Her lawyers argued that she had the right to free speech, but a federal appeals court agreed with the school district for firing her, saying that her actions were “so disruptive at school as to tip the Pickering balance in the school district’s favor.” The Pickering balance refers to a 1968 case that determined that an employee’s right to free speech is protected IF it is a matter of public concern AND if the employee’s interest outweighs the public employer’s interest in an efficient workplace.

When my daughter was in sixth grade, I spoke with the vice-principal about this: kids using social media and how it affects the school environment. He told me that a day didn’t go by when he didn’t have students in his office, discussing something that happened online that caused a problem when the students saw each other again.

What makes that even more troublesome is that this was a grade school, going up to sixth grade. At this point, the students are almost certainly no older than 12 years old. This is important because most social media companies out there require that users be at least 13 years old to use their apps in order to avoid violating the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Rule of 1998, more commonly known as COPPA. This act was designed to limit the amount and type of data that companies can data-mine from them. In reality, it is one of the most broken laws we have, as millions of minors use apps that they should not be using.

How to Avoid Problems

Let’s be honest – most children have at least one incident through their school years that requires the school to take corrective action of some kind. One way to minimize that from happening is to follow the T.H.I.N.K. Principle, as recommended by Fifty Shades of Purple against Bullying, an organization designed to help families who have been affected by bullying in any form. The T.H.I.N.K. Principle helps teach everyone to avoid doing or saying something that could cause problems for them later by focusing on five key points:

  • TRUE Is what I’m saying True?
  • HELPFUL Is what I’m saying Helpful to the situation?
  • INSPIRING Is what I’m saying Inspiring to others?
  • NECESSARY Is what I’m saying Necessary?
  • KIND Is what I’m saying Kind?

It always amazes me as to what I see people post online, especially on Twitter. People say things online that they would never do in person, sometimes hiding behind the anonymity of an app. If we can’t honestly answer yes to these five questions, then we probably shouldn’t post it.

Maybe a better way to consider it is that we should dance like nobody else is watching, but post like we expect it to be read in the principal’s office or even open court someday.

Shame Nation: Choose To Be Part Of “The Solution”

It was July 2017 and I was at home when I got a call from my niece. She and my sister were driving somewhere, and this particular call went something like this…

    • “Hey Aunt Stef…you’ve got to check this out…it’s the funniest thing…You remember when we did that show Legally Blonde? Well there’s this group of young kids, and I guess they did a performance of it too, only their teacher video-taped it and posted it on YouTube and oh my G-d Aunt Stef, it’s AWFUL. I mean it’s so bad it’s funny. You’ve got to watch it. Here let me text you some of it.”
    • No that’s ok babe, I don’t need to see it”…
    • “Really Aunt Stef, it’s sooo funny, mom watched it and she thought it was hysterical. I can’t believe their teacher posted this. It went viral so fast it’s incredible. Look I know it’s really long but you can fast forward through some of it, I’ll tell you where the funniest parts are”.
    • Honey…how old are these kids?”
    • “I don’t know…I think they’re in middle school… Look Aunt Stef I’ve got to go, I just texted it to you…watch it later and tell me what you think. You’re going to die laughing…. I love you!!”

I didn’t check it out. But I also didn’t tell her not to. And that bothered me. Something felt really wrong with this video. I was worried about those little kids…I was worried FOR those little kids. How old were they? How long had this been going viral, and how many people around the world were laughing at them? I knew for a fact my niece and her friends at school were laughing…and still, even though it bothered me…I said and did nothing.

When I look back at it now, I think it bothered me so much because my niece and her friends weren’t bad or mean kids. Actually quite the opposite. My niece is a gifted and talented young actress studying at a high school for the arts, and I am incredibly proud of her, but for a very different reason. I can say without a doubt that she is one of the nicest, kindest people I know, and she would NEVER deliberately hurt someone! In fact, she feels things very deeply. Yet she missed this! She didn’t see the pain she and the other people watching and laughing over that video were causing.

How the heck did we get here??? To this place where we can sit in a room and make fun of someone who is not there to defend themselves and have no sense at all that our laughing could be hurting them.

That is EXACTLY what nationally recognized speaker, parent advocate, and Internet safety expert Sue Scheff explores with the help of journalist, YA author, and blogger Melissa Schorr in her newly released book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. Sue knows firsthand how devastating cyber shaming can be. In 2006 she won a landmark case for Internet defamation and invasion of privacy. Now a leader in the movement against cyber bullying, she focuses on teaching others how to avoid virtual cruelty and how to effectively react when it occurs.

According to Shame Nation, psychologists point to several factors that have allowed online cruelty like this to flourish:

  • the anonymity of the Internet;
  • the distance, or lack of face-to-face contact, with a victim,
  • mob mentality run amok,
  • lack of gatekeepers and
  • lack of consequences.

Taken together these factors have become known as the “online disinhibition effect”; the notion that people behave far differently online than they would in reality.

But there’s more than a lack of inhibition happening here. It’s also due in part to our failure to instill empathy in young people, and Shame Nation explores this as well. Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba, EdD, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World makes a strong case that a decrease in basic empathy has created a culture ripe for online attacks. The inability to see those on the other side of the computer screen as people deserving of our compassion is a huge driver. Instead of feeling sad for their pain, we make it funny. We sit at home and watch the “People of Walmart” and laugh as people are publicly shamed. You don’t see or feel the hurt…it’s so far removed, it’s not “real”.

That was what happened with the middle-school performance of Legally Blonde. My niece missed the ball on this one. There was an opportunity to be an “Upstander” …not just a bystander…or worse, add to the teasing and humiliation, and she missed it. But whose fault was that really? If I’m being honest, it was mine

I’m the adult, I set the example. This means I and the other adults in her life need to know what’s happening out in the cyber-world so we can educate her. So she knows what to look for to avoid becoming a victim…or inadvertently a bully.

And while we’re on this subject, I know some of you may be thinking “lock her in her room and for anything other than schoolwork, shut off the internet and all those damn devices” is the answer. But while it may sound good on paper, realistically, I can’t tell her to stay off-line. No-one can. For better or worse, this is a connected world we live in…all of us… kids and adults. Going off the grid is just not an option – and it won’t save her. As Nancy Jo Sales describes in her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, “I spoke to girls who said, “Social media is destroying our lives. But we can’t go off it, because then we’d have no life.”

So my niece is on the grid (and I am guessing if you are reading this, so is a child you care about), and she is not getting off any time soon – not as a child, and realistically not as an adult. But I can help her. I can:

  • Teach her how to avoid trouble: give her guidelines for online sharing; show her how to protect her online identify and run regular checkups to make sure no-one is damaging her reputation
  • Teach her how to control a disaster if things go wrong: how to document, block, report and identify someone trying to harm her.
  • Teach her how to get support: to take advantage of resources like HeartMob and Crisis Text Line and Online SOS…and know there are systems in place providing help, from simple letters of support to full-on legal aid, if she finds herself a victim of a digital attack.

Because that’s what I learned from Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.

And finally, I can Teach her to be an Upstander. I can explain what that word is, why it’s important to stand-up for someone else. And then I can apologize for not doing that…and for failing her and those kids. And that’s when I realized if I didn’t do something right at that moment, I would be failing them both again.

So I picked up the phone and called her. And it was a difficult call. Because while it was about something she had done, in truth, it was more about what I hadn’t done. And my very sensitive niece brought up an excellent argument – one I’m betting every one of you will have to deal with at some point, because it’s really fundamental to the Upstander / bystander question:

  • “But Aunt Stef, I don’t think there’s really anything I could have done…there were millions of people…that post went viral”.

She had a point – but then again, that’s the battle every single person faces when they’re being bullied online. They’re one person and it feels like they’re fighting the world. That’s what made this book so insightful, and so powerful, at least for me. What do you do…what can you do…if you come up against this situation… Whether you are living this or just witnessing this. This was my answer…

“Well, hon, what do you think about this”…and I gave her an example I had read (thank you Sue) about a heavy-set middle-aged man who was being publicly humiliated. All he did was dance at a local bar with friends, but someone captured it on video and posted it and the rude comments started coming in from all over. Until two women in LA created a #FindDancingMan twitter campaign, said “I’d dance with that guy”, and created a movement that turned the shaming into a party of compassion.

    • “I’m not saying you have to create a “dancing man campaign” but do you think you and your friends could come up with something creative that might make those kids feel even just a little bit better?”

 

    • I don’t know…maybe”.

And just like that, this HUGE weight came off my shoulders. She didn’t have to have an answer… that wasn’t the magic pill here. She’s a brilliant kid with a big heart and this hit home. I stood up for those kids…and for her …and I think when she has an opportunity, she will stand up for someone else.

It has to start somewhere… That day, it started with us…

One Wrong Click! Your Kid’s in Trouble Now!

We hear in the news that companies get hacked all the time, but we rarely hear about when it happens to people like us. Trust me, it happens a lot!

Ransomware is more common than people realize, making its way into a device, such as a laptop, phone or tablet. Its name comes from the demand from the hacker to have their victim pay a fee to regain control of their device.

For private citizens, the danger includes targeting our children via emails and on social media. Even the most innocuous looking link can be a Trojan Horse, just waiting to infect a device. Kids may not realize the dangers inherent in clicking links and without meaning to, introduce malware onto their device or maybe even onto your device if family members share a device.

About eight years ago, Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf’s laptop was infected with malware. As a result, her laptop’s camera was recording her in her dorm room without her knowledge. Another teenager contacted Miss Wolf and threatened to release the intimate pictures of her unless she sent him more pictures. According to the records, he threatened to turn her “dream of being a model…into a porn star.”

That’s why I always keep a cover over my laptop’s camera unless I’m actively using it! Covering the microphone isn’t a bad idea, either.

To show you how easy it is to be tricked, all three of the links below appear as though they will take you to Google’s home page. The truth is that only one of them actually does what it appears to do. Can you tell which one that is? Don’t worry if you’re wrong, because the others take you to safe sites, I promise.

https://www.google.com/

https://www.google.com/

https://www.google.com/

On a laptop or tablet, you may be able to move the mouse/pointer over the link and see its destination before you click on it. Maybe. But on cellphones, that’s not an option and once you click on it, it’s too late – you’re in trouble and may not even realize it until it’s too late.

If infected with malware, the FBI’s official policy is to not pay the ransom, but many people feel it’s the only way that they will get access to their technology again. The key is to avoid getting infected in the first place.

Here are five steps that you and your kids can take to avoid potential malware problems:

  1. Explain to your children why they should never click on unknown links or download files from a source that is not completely trustworthy.
  2. Either design your devices so that they backup your data automatically or teach your children how to make backups of your data regularly, probably onto a flash drive.
  3. Teach them why they should never plug an unknown flash drive into your device.
  4. Install anti-virus software and keep it up to date and make sure that your children let you know about any warnings or messages that pop up on their devices BEFORE they act upon them.
  5. Make sure that your kids know to avoid letting others use their equipment, as they may not follow the same steps mentioned here and could introduce a virus onto the device.

Even by following these steps, keep in mind that nothing is foolproof, but anything you can do to help prevent your devices from being infected with viruses are well worth the effort. Even if no critical school or work files are lost, imagine the inconvenience of not having the devices available until they are fixed or maybe, replaced!

Hackers quickly come up with new coding that works around existing anti-virus software. The companies that make it are often playing catch up, learning about the new virus only after it has affected someone. Even Microsoft, one of the biggest tech companies in the world, has paid millions to hackers, paying them to expose weaknesses in their security. Like most problems involving both technology and our children, an ounce of prevention isn’t just worth a pound of cure – it’s worth an immeasurable amount of cure!

So where do you start??

Go back to the basics and remind your kids to not click on links from people that they don’t know. Even links sent by friends could be a problem if they’re just forwarding on a link from an untrustworthy source. Many hackers or predators will use the same technique that I used above to trick people into following links that look perfectly safe, but aren’t.

The best analogy that I can give you to use is to tell your kids to treat their computer like your own home. Just as you wouldn’t give a stranger the keys to your house, letting malware into your computer can give them access into plenty of personal information, including banking and credit card accounts, control over your device’s microphone/camera and a lot more…all without you even realizing that you’ve been attacked!

By following the steps above, you and your family will be far less likely to have malware introduced onto your devices and avoiding the problems in the first place is by far, the best possible outcome.

How Concerned Should Parents Be About Kik?

Kik is one of the more popular messenger apps used by tweens and teenagers. Parents should learn about this app because it has a history of being a breeding ground for online predators, spammers, hackers and more. Worse yet, I’ve spoken with local law enforcement officers who report that the company has been very reluctant to help them with cases involving cyberbullying and harassment where other platforms would be more willing to help.

Kik was going to shut down in 2019 but came back in a modified format. In the new format, users can have Kik put them together into a private chat based on mutually liked topics, such as music, games, travel, etc. These private rooms are anonymous, and users have several minutes to decide if they wish to continue the discussion using their official profiles.

Another feature allows people can create group chats for up to 50 people. The members of the group stay in the group even after they stop using the app each day so they can return to it later. Additionally, Kik has created quite a few public chatrooms for groups based on topics like where they live, hobbies, etc. Many of them, especially those that are from a specific geographic area, tend to fill up quickly. That makes them an easy place for predators to find local targets.

Take a look at the graph below to see how I rate Kik on several key areas of concern for parents. In my article for Pediatric Safety on Instagram, I explain in much more detail what the values on the graph mean and how using an app might endanger a child, but here it is in short form:

What the Numbers Mean:

The numbers / ratings represent the likelihood that you will see the risky behavior occur within this app.

  • Rating < 5 is minimal risk and is highly unlikely to occur on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.
  • A rating of 5-6 is average risk – it should concern parents, but not overly so.
  • A rating of 7 or 8 is problematic and should concern parents quite a bit.
  • A 9 or 10 rating is very troubling as that behavior is almost a certainty within this app, and involves issues that are likely of extreme concern to parents, such as sextortion and child pornography.

Catfishing (10 out of 10)

Of all of the apps that I’ve seen, Kik rates the worst when it comes to the number of catfish (fakes) on it. Similar to Whisper, Kik is considered an “anonymous app”, but unlike Whisper, it actually has a profile of sorts. This can trick people into believing that the person at the other end is as shown in the profile. It’s not a safe assumption, but many people, especially inexperienced kids, often make it.

Cyberbullying (7 out of 10)

Cyberbully can happen on any site and Kik is no different. It is pretty easy to block someone who attacks you directly in private messages. Where cyberbullying is most likely to happen is within a Kik group. Once in a group, the members can “roast” another person. Unlike the humorous roasts people see on TV of celebrities, social media roasts tend to be cruel. Imagine being attacked online, live, by dozens of people all at once!

I’ve been invited into more than one group, only to be roasted because of my age (I show my real age). When teens see someone old enough to be their father on Kik, they feel the need to treat them with disdain. Many either see me as a predator or at the least, a weirdo for being online with teenagers. I take that as a good sign, actually, that those teens are at least looking out for predators. Sometimes, however, I’ve been approached by younger users who want to start a relationship with me.

Language (10 out of 10)

One of the funniest things on Kik is seeing people using intentionally incorrect spelling. They’re trying to avoid being detected by filters to help identify cyberbullying, sexting and the like. For example, rather than saying that they are looking for sex, they will put spaces between the letters. Another option is to spell words phonetically.

What they fail to realize is that the site has no interest in doing such a thing. Even casual observation by the company would notice how prevalent the problem is and if the company wanted to take action, they could do so easily. If they wanted to scan for people who type, “I want sex,” they can also scan for people who type, “I want s e x,” or some other common variation of vulgar/inappropriate speech.

Profanity, racial and homophobic slurs are very common on Kik. As are attacks based on nationality, political beliefs and just about anything else that people can think of to attack. The public groups created by people are often listed as “unmoderated” or “no limits” and the posts in those rooms can get intense, but not always. I’ve seen some group admins be responsible and remove users who act inappropriately.

Nudity (9 out of 10)

This app features plenty of nudity on it, including both pictures and videos. Like many social media apps, users have a profile picture. While many of the accounts have acceptable images, that’s not always the case. Some users include inappropriate images, even of younger children.

Private chats between users can embed images directly in the conversation. I have seen quite a bit of nudity sent, usually from automated accounts trying to get me to follow a link to have access to even more images. I have also received unsolicited images and videos from people that contain nudity, both of men and women. Below is a private message sent directly to me from an account that I never engaged with previously. The image on the left is the profile picture on the account.

I have reported accounts to Kik but have never seen any actions taken as a result. It is possible that the service took actions without telling me, but I have my doubts. Even if they did, it’s all too easy to simply start a new account with another email address.

Privacy (5 out of 10)

I don’t consider any app/site to be private. That said, Kik scores lower than most simply because of how it works. There is really no expectation of privacy on the app. Users can block individual users from contacting them, but that’s about it. My personal blocked list has several hundred accounts on it.

Sexting (10 out of 10)

Despite what the original or publicly claimed intention was for Kik, it has evolved into essentially a pure sexting app. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this app and while there are a few people not looking for sexting, I find that the majority of users are hoping to find someone for sexting purposes.

Beyond the posting actively looking for people to sext or roleplay with, a innocuous introduction to someone, such as “Hi.” or “How are you?”, can often result in an obscene reply, often with images. Considering the amount of catfishing that happens on the site, who knows if the images are of the actual user.

Sextortion (9 out of 10)

Hand in hand with sexting comes sextortion, the blackmailing of someone to provide nude images/videos. If you’re not familiar with what sextortion is, take 60 seconds to watch this video. It is a very realistic demonstration as to how sextortion starts.

Stalking (5 out of 10)

Offline stalking with this app is very difficult to do, so long as users don’t share personal information with others, such as telling them where they live or go to school.

With its anonymous nature and limited profile, the only way that most people can be stalked on Kik is by not blocking people who might follow them on the app. Even if they do, people can easily create a new profile and stalk people and predators are known for having multiple accounts on each apps to stalk people and avoid being blocked. Some even use another account to create two distinct personalities – one to stalk and harass someone and another to befriend the person.

Viruses (10 out of 10)

Most of the accounts that I have blocked appear to be automated accounts (bots). They typically offer free nude pics to anyone who will follow the link provided. I have never followed any of the links, because it’s one of the easiest ways to allow viruses/malware access to your device.

I can’t say it any plainer than this: just don’t follow any link that you don’t absolutely know it’s origin and destination, no matter where it looks like it might be taking you. To see what I mean, read this article I wrote on malware and see just how easy it is for people to trick you.

Bottom Line

It’s all too easy for bad things to happen to good people on Kik. I’m not saying that the company does this intentionally, but I haven’t seen much in the way of the company helping prevent it. Bark, a company that provides parenting software for kids’ devices reported earlier this year that Kik has the most flagged app for severe sexual content.

To help navigate Kik as safely as possible, kids should do the following:

  1. Personally, I don’t trust any of the KiK accounts to be what they claim to be. Trust but verify is very difficult to practice here, as there are way too many accounts that seem to be something other than what they claim to be.
  2. Remember that links don’t always take you where they look like they may go. Never follow a link sent by someone to avoid the risks of having viruses and malware accidentally installed on your device.
  3. Avoid giving anyone information that can be used to help locate you to avoid giving a potential predator a way to track you down. That includes giving them an email address, credentials to a different social media account (very common on Kik) or personal information such as your address or phone number.

With four topics receiving a maximum of 10 and two that received a 9, Kik is an app that parents should think twice about before letting their kids use it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have already done a similar article here on Instagram as well as one on Whisper and will be doing more apps in the future, so please feel free to check back here for more articles on popular apps. You can also check out my other articles here on Pediatric Safety by visiting my profile and complete list of articles.

How Concerned Should Parents Be About Whisper?

Whisper is an anonymous app, launched almost 10 years ago, where people post things that they might not want to admit to in public. While maybe not as well known by parents as some others, it has over 900 million accounts, according to the Washington Post and many of them are teens.

According to the Whisper’s own terms and conditions, users must be at least 13, but anyone under the age of 18 may only use the app under the supervision of a parent or legal guardian who agrees to their terms of use. They indicate that anyone who does not agree with these terms should simply not access or use the service. How often do you expect that happens?

While the company calls what people post on the app, “User Content”, most people simply call them either “Whispers” or “Secrets.” I’ve used Whisper and found it to be one of the most interesting apps out there. Of course, I fully expect that most of the “user content” is fake.

Assuming that people actually use it for its intended purpose, to secretly tell things about themselves and that they probably wouldn’t tell people they know, it’s probably harmless. But that’s clearly not all that happens on the app. Below is a graph for a grading system that I devised to help parents understand the risks involved for their children using popular apps. In my most recent article on Instagram, I explain in detail what the values on the graph mean and how using an app might endanger a child, but here it is below in a nutshell:

What the Numbers Mean:

The numbers / ratings represent the likelihood that you will see the risky behavior occur within this app.

  • Rating < 5 is minimal risk and is highly unlikely to occur on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.
  • A rating of 5-6 is average risk – it should concern parents, but not overly so.
  • A rating of 7 or 8 is problematic and should concern parents quite a bit.
  • A 9 or 10 rating is very troubling as that behavior is almost a certainty within this app, and involves issues that are likely of extreme concern to parents, such as sextortion and child pornography.

Catfishing (10 out of 10)

As an “anonymous” app, there is no attempt made to identify the users. The profiles, what little of it there is on the app, don’t even include the possibility of a picture be added. That makes it perfect for people who don’t wish to be identified. When posting a secret on the app, users have the ability to upload a picture for that individual post, which may be of themselves or it may be one that they took from some other source. Additionally, Whisper has a large library of images available by users and the app will suggest images based on words typed by the user that get superimposed in front of the image.

Cyberbullying (8 out of 10)

The potential for cyberbullying exists anywhere. I’ve seen it on posts/apps where I would least expect it. With Whisper, it can often come from pictures that the person posted which were meant to be silly or sexy. Body shaming is pretty common in cases like this on Whisper, assuming that the image in the post is really of the person who posted it.

As another example, in a recent posting, a woman announced that her boyfriend had revealed online that they were engaged before she wanted it publicly known. Within just a few hours, there were well over 300 replies, many saying that she should be happy that he was excited to be engaged. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the replies were critical of the original post and a few were not polite about it, to say the least.

Language (8 out of 10)

There is virtually no filter on what people say on social media platforms and Whisper is no exception. On social media apps that are popular with kids, they may choose to intentionally spell words incorrectly, but close enough that the reader understands the message. For example, they may use “$” instead of “S” or “!” instead of “I.” Most likely, they are trying to avoid filters that search for specific keywords but considering how often I’ve seen posts on Whisper that have foul/inappropriate words on them, it seems likely that they have little to be concerned about in this area.

Nudity (8 out of 10)

This is a little bit of a gray area. Overall, I have seen very little, if any actual nudity on Whisper, but many images certainly push the boundaries. I have observed images showing both boys and girls in images that their parents would probably object to them using/seeing. As Whisper does allow people to send private messages between users, there may be cases where nudity is involved there, but I can’t say that for sure.

Privacy (6 out of 10)

As an anonymous app, this app has the advantage of not giving others easy access to users’ personal information. Facebook, for example, provides lots of opportunities for people to publicly share where they work, who they’re married to and more. So long as users practice common sense, there’s not too much risk of privacy being lost here. The risk with Whisper is how much personal information people are willing to share within their posts and through private messages. Let’s just hope that common sense prevails.

Sexting (8 out of 10)

This is a huge issue on the app. From what I can see, the majority of posts seem to have at least some sexual connotation to them. The rating would be higher than this based simply on the sheer volume of sexual content (explicit and implicit) on the app, however it is tempered somewhat by the anonymous nature of the app. It clearly has the potential for a higher rating, especially for an app that hosts groups with names such as Sexual Confessions, Horny People, etc.

Sextortion (6 out of 10)

Any app/site that has the potential for sexting also has the potential for sextortion – the act of forcing others to perform acts of a sexual nature online. This typically requires sending images or videos, which the recipient can then use against them to force them to send even more images or do just about anything else they want to avoid the images being made public.

It gets worse if the target provides their profile names for other sites/apps, which is common on Whisper. Unfortunately, it is very common to see people post their Snapchat or Instagram name on the account, (assuming that they’re providing their own information and not intentionally setting someone else up for online harassment).

Stalking (8 out of 10)

I recommend minors not use Whisper and that anyone who does use it disable the ability for the app to know their location. I say that because the app has a feature that will automatically include the location of where the picture was posted from. Other users then have the ability to search for posts made close to their current location.

A little over three years ago, a story made the news about a young girl who met a man on Whisper. She was only 14 but claimed to be 15-17 (Whisper uses age brackets). At some point, the man suggested that they switch over to a different app. At that point, he requested that she send him naked pictures of herself and she acquiesced. Eventually, they met in person, where he provided her with marijuana and eventually, sexually assaulted the young girl, according to authorities.

This was all possible because the predator was able to search geographically on the app to find potential targets. Online predators are very skilled at finding and recruiting, as I’ve written here on Pediatric Safety.

Another feature on Whisper is to find posts that were made recently. This lets predators hopefully find people before they have signed off and can engage them in a conversation. In theory, a good idea, but it is too easy for predators to exploit.

Viruses (3 out of 10)

Sending viruses via Whisper is all but impossible, from what I’ve seen. When entered as part of a secret, the words are there, but it has been converted to an image, not an active link. However, anyone who wished to send a virus could easily do so by placing it into a direct message to someone.

If they, in turn, copy/paste it into a browser, the virus could take effect. The tease of seeing naked pictures might entice someone to do that and with URL shorteners, it wouldn’t even look like a potential risky site.

Bottom Line

Whisper is riskier than it might appear were we to average the nine potential areas of concern. That is, an average would treat each of the concerns equally, but as parents, we may be more concerned with the areas of cyberbullying and sextortion than the risk of a virus. When it comes to using Whisper as safely as possible, there are some basic principles that all users, but especially kids, should follow:

  1. It may be cynical, however, assume that nobody is who they claim to be on Whisper. Trust, but verify doesn’t apply here because everyone is hiding behind a veil of anonymity.
  2. Assume that whatever you post on the app will be seen by everyone, not just the people who have access to seeing your posts. When taking the geographic search feature into account, it is very possible that people within your own community can see what you post on Whisper.
  3. Never, under any circumstances, post a picture of yourself, or anyone else for that matter, that you might regret later. It’s better to think of it not being a question of IF someone you know will see what you post, but WHEN will they see it. That includes parents, teachers, siblings, co-workers, etc.

Like most apps, Whisper can be fun to use, but it comes with risk and those risks need to be considered. As I mentioned earlier, I have already done a similar article here on Instagram and will be doing more apps in the future, so I recommend that you check back here for more articles on popular apps. You can also check out my other articles here on Pediatric Safety by visiting my profile and complete list of articles.

Next Page »