After School App is a popular free app, with 75% of high schools having pages and millions of teens using it, all anonymously. And there are some issues with it.
How it works:
High schools have message boards and posts can be made only by students at that school. The app verifies that the user is a student via Facebook. Posts are made anonymously with no names, and no adults are allowed.
What parents need to know:
* Users of this app are anonymous, and anonymity online generally doesn't promote good behavior, and it never sits well with me given how easy it is to cyberbully others.
The app's website says, "[N]o one will be able to tell who posted it unless you put identifying information in your message" and says "This gives people the right to express themselves." While there can be benefits to that, there are drawbacks, too, as illustrated by how some have used After School.
* The After School app has been used to bully students, and as a vehicle for other less than stellar behavior.
"Envisioned as a safe space for high schoolers to discuss sensitive issues without having to reveal their names, After School has in some cases become a vehicle for bullying, crude observations and alleged criminal activity, all under a cloak of secrecy," according to this Washington Post article.
* The After School app has been used to make anonymous threats of school violence in Kansas and Michigan, according to this report on Good Morning America. It has also been used to bully students.
* The required age to download the app is 17 and the app store advises that there are "Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes." Users, however, can register at 13 but must verify they are over 17 to to see posts tagged with "sex," "drugs," "profanity," or "gross." The verification comes by scanning the code on their ID cards.
Common Sense Media's review explains, "The age controls are tight, too, which not only means that nonteen predators will have difficulty getting in, but it also means parents can't monitor teens' postings themselves."
* The fact that no parents or adults are permitted is a huge red flag to me. Experts consistently advise parents to be online where their kids are, and they do it for a reason. Research, including this study published in Pediatrics, shows that parents being actively involved in their kids' media lives has many benefits, including helping kids understand what they're viewing and how to make good choices.
* The app developers are implementing changes to address the issues and make it safer.
The creators of the app have implemented changes after it was removed from the app store following complaints. It's back, and now a live moderator reviews posts. It now includes the ability to report a post, a "one and done" policy for poor behavior, as well as personalized content filters.
If someone writes a post that appears distressed, the app asked if they want to talk with someone about their problem and connects those who say "yes" to someone at a support service with whom they can talk.
Parents need to decide if they are willing to allow their kids to use an app that is difficult if not impossible for them to monitor. That could depend on a variety of factors, including a kid's maturity, sensitivity, demonstrated ability to handle themselves well online, if parents have concerns about bullying and cyberbullying, etc.
They should also discuss with their kids the risks that come with anonymity, as well as the fact that identity can most often be traced. It's worth talking with kids about why they want anonymity and what benefits they see from the app before they dive in.
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