The music app your child uses that could be more dangerous than you think
When Kate’s 11-year-old daughter Charlie asked if she could have Instagram, she told her they would discuss it when she turned 13. Then early into Grade 5 Charlie started to talk about an app called musical.ly. Everyone at school had it except her. Not wanting her to feel left out, Kate let her have it on her iPad.
Little did she know that it is an app that authorities have described as ‘a paedophile's dream.’ Now she wants to warn other parents of what can happen when they don’t understand the technology that is in their kid’s hands.
On the surface, musical.ly is an app in which users, called ‘musers’, can make short videos of themselves lip syncing to the latest pop songs. They can then share their videos with their friends. What many parents don’t realise is that it is not only friends who are viewing their children’s music videos.
It took an 18-year-old family friend to alert Kate to the dangers of her child being on the app.
“Why is she on there?” she asked me. She told me of her experience of the platform in which young girls and boys often sing and dance to very explicit rap songs, mimicking the very suggestive movements of the pop stars. They then often share these publicly so they get more ‘likes’ on their videos,” said Kate.
“We looked through Charlie’s account together... months after she had opened it we realised she had not set it to private and indeed on one of her videos there was a perverse comment from a stranger.” The comment appeared to be from an older woman, but on social media nothing is necessarily as it seems.
In the UK, one parent took to social media to warn parents about the dangers of the app when he discovered that his 13-year-old daughter was being groomed by a middle aged man using a fake profile – he was posing as a 13-year-old boy. Another mother in the UK discovered that her daughter was being asked for nude photos through the messaging function of the app.
Of further concern to parents was the fact that the app includes a location tracker so that users in the same area can see each other’s location.
“When you realise the dangers that these apps can pose you do a double take as a parent. I just couldn’t believe how irresponsible I had been,” said Kate.
Kate also discovered that she couldn’t delete her daughter’s account. While she could remove the application from her iPad, the dozens of videos Charlie had posted through the app were still available for others to view. She is now in the process of deleting them one by one.
“More support is needed for parents to understand what is happening for young people online and the everyday dangers and pressures they face,” says Rebecca Asquith, a media educator who facilitated a discussion group for parents on the topic for the last three years at the Girl To Woman Festival in Lennox Head NSW.
“App developers create their apps to psychologically hook their users. A key way to do this is to reward users who get the most likes and comments.”
There are children on musical.ly with public accounts, many who appear to be under 13 years old, who gain millions of ‘fans’ from their videos. It is like a ‘top of the pops’ where any child gets a chance to be a star of the app. This is often a big incentive for kids to keep their accounts public. But where there has to be more accountability by app developers is in the design of the apps. When you sign up, by default your account is set to public and your location is visible to other users. This poses a huge risk to children. Supporting yourself to know how to check the settings of your children’s apps is essential to ensure they are staying safe, but equally important is making sure that you trust your feelings about what’s right for your child.”
Kate recalls her initial response to Charlie using the app, “It was all she and her friends would talk about. I didn’t feel comfortable with how much she was using it” Kate recalls, “but I pushed the feelings away because I didn’t want to take something away from her that she seemed to enjoy so much.”
“This is ‘just what the new generation is doing and you don’t understand it,’ I told myself, but now I realise that it is my responsibility to understand. We can’t underestimate the harms of some of these apps.”
“The interesting thing was when I took it off her iPad she didn’t protest. She was upset of course because it was a linkway to her friends but did not refuse, no tantrum; we had a long conversation about it and in her I could feel almost a relief, a ‘thanks mum, you finally got it’. It was as if she wanted the boundaries set that she couldn’t make for herself.”