The Online Landscape for Teens: Making New Friends

Written by Kingston Ko, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Information Science Major

Image Source: Apple App Store

Introduction

Mobile dating apps, such as Tinder and Hinge, are revolutionizing the way in which people form connections, and ultimately perceive romantic relationships. They act as a great tool for those who are 18 years old or older to find new connections at a much more frequent rate, and allow them to get to know each other in a safe and familiar form of mediated communication. The youth of today, by growing up with technology highly integrated in their lives, are aware of how technology abets relationship formation, and often take to the internet to find ways of meeting new people online. Prior research done by Wiswinski et al., [2] has explored the balance between parental influence and teenage self-regulation in mitigating potential risks for youth. However, as technology is incorporated in youth lives so seemingly, different avenues of influence and risk must be analyzed. Research conducted by Black et al. [1] explores the distinction between perceived risk and actual risk on social media platforms, in which discrepancies were found between reported and actual practices online. As minors and teens are now searching for more
inconspicuous ways to meet others online, the channels that facilitate this interaction should be regulated and monitored meticulously given the vulnerability of their target audience, and the risky behavior observed in prior work. Thus, continuing the efforts to further refine teen safety online, I explored just how safe this online landscape is for minors looking to form connections. I conducted a digital ethnographic study of various mobile apps targeted towards minors in which registration regulations and user experiences of the apps were analyzed. For my research, I focused on two groups of apps targeted towards teens, in which one group had an app-store age suggestion of 17+ years old (Yubo and SpotaFriend) and the other having a suggestion of 12+(Hoop and Wink). My experience with the apps, having taken on multiple personas differing in age and location, has allowed me to identify several themes that need urgent attention and reformation as they create an unsafe environment for minors online.

Who is the App Really For?

Taking on the persona of a teen looking for online avenues to facilitate matchmaking with fellow teens, a quick Google search returned the immensely popular apps Yubo and SpotaFriend. Both of these apps are heavily marketed towards teens, and even claim in their own compan description to be designed for people of ages 13–17. However, in the IOS app store in which these apps are available for download, their age suggestions are both 17+. This incongruence between company-stated policies and the platform that makes these services available to the public creates a major potential harm to minors as the misinformation could lead to unwanted parties interacting with them on the app. With any online service catered towards minors, there must be diligent precautions taken in order to mitigate the possibility of pedophilia and predatory actions on their platforms. However, as we see with Yubo and SpotaFriend, rather than enforcing the age range they claim to be designed for, they perpetuate the inclusion of potentially harmful parties through their lack of accountability in ensuring app-store information is congruent with their policies.

A continuation of my search led me to find the apps Wink and Hoop. Unlike Yubo and SpotaFriend, which explicitly state they cater towards minors, Wink and Hoop portray a more general purpose of helping people meet others online with no specification of an age range. However, through the very childish and playful user interface these apps have, it is clear that the apps are targeted towards younger populations. Interestingly enough, Hoop and Wink had app store age suggestions of 12+ which further emphasizes their catering towards minors. In my ethnographic work with these apps, one major concern that came about was the lack of age regulation in registering for these apps. These platforms often required the upload of a profile picture in order to verify the users’ age during registration. However, in my experiences with these apps, I was able to easily register using a stock image of a man appearing in his mid 30’s. Although these apps have claimed to take steps to combat the allowance of dangerous, false profiles on their platforms, it was clear in my research that they still have a long way to go to actually fulfill the promise of screening they advertise. This lack of technologically-sound regulation allows potentially harmful parties easy access to the platforms, which in turn, puts the thousands of minors on these apps at risk.

Can the Content get Worse?

The proclaimed purpose of these apps is to help teens find other teens to connect with; essentially a matchmaking platform for teens to make friends. However, upon experiencing these apps first-hand, I quickly found that the nature of these apps are much more provocative and explicit than advertised. All of the apps I analyzed had a ‘Swipe’ feature, in which images of a person appear on your screen and you swipe to either choose or move on from that profile. As dating apps, such as Tinder, have thrived by using this feature, I am unsure whether this is the best method for friend-matchmaking for minors. This methodology works for dating apps, given that people often look for matches who meet their physical preferences. However, on a platform meant for minors to find friends, this feature can perpetuate the idea of sexual/romantic relationships as physical features are the first and sometimes only form of impression. Many of these apps (Yubo, SpotaFriend, Wink) also allow users to include a short bio within their profiles to share more information about themselves. Given these platforms are meant to facilitate friendships, this would be a great place for commonalities to be found between users. In actuality, these bios were utilized more to offer links to other social media platforms, such as Snapchat or Instagram, and to signify the status of their explicit-content sharing tendencies. I’ve found that users tend to link their other social profiles due to the app at hand having a poor chat functionality. This brings about the apparent dangers of other social platforms, especially Snapchat, where imagery can be inconspicuously shared and stalking is enabled. One of the more disturbing findings I discovered was the slang used by users of these apps. Specifically within the app ‘SpotaFriend’, I noticed the phrase “I don’t send” or “Don’t send” frequently included in the bios of the number of users I swiped through. This phrase refers to the user’s tendency to send explicit photos to other users, commonly known as ‘nudes’, and how they want to make it apparent they do not partake in such activity. To have such a disconcerting practice be so apparent on a platform should bring the whole environment of the platform into question. With such illegal sexual activity obviously prevalent on their platform, SpotaFriend is not only allowing such activity to take place, but it encourages it through its lack of content moderation. As the nature of ‘nude-sharing’ is a predominant theme within this app, this puts the whole community at a major risk for a multitude of harms, including underage pornography, harassment, and stalking.

Also, within the ‘SpotaFriend’ platform, there is a feature where users can include their interests and interact with users of similar interests. They do so by stating their interests in their profiles, using the syntax ‘#interest’, which ultimately creates a community of users who share that common interest. The app then allows users to browse through the various communities to then be presented with profiles of users who share that interest. Upon my discovery of this feature, I immediately noticed a very disturbing community, which was built upon the common interest of ‘#nudes’. Given this platform markets towards minors, the very existence of this interest is illegal and gives way to a plethora of severe harms. With such a community available on the app, along with its loosely regulated registration practices, this could be a predator’s dream as their malicious actions are essentially streamlined by the app’s practices.

Discussion

Overall, through my experiences with these apps, I found there to be more areas of potential harms than benefits. The apps fulfill their promise of facilitating and harboring connections for teens, but the lack of regulation of these apps has created a landscape that put teens at risk for many severe harms. The sexual connotation many of these apps have developed exemplify the grave lack of content moderation that is needed to ethically host a platform catered towards minors. With the jokingly-easy registration process, these apps are doing little to nothing to prevent the infiltration of predators on their platforms, thus putting thousands of minors at serious risk. These platforms, and those alike, need to be held accountable for their lack of responsibility in ensuring their platforms are safe for the minors they market towards. Stricter practices need to be imposed on the registration process and content moderation to have an even close to ethical platform.

Works Cited

[1] Black, S. R., Schmiege, S., & Bull, S. (2013). Actual versus perceived peer sexual risk behavior in online youth social networks. Translational Behavioral Medicine, 3(3), 312–319. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13142-013-0227-y

[2] Wisniewski, P., Ghosh, A. K., Xu, H., Rosson, M. B., & Carroll, J. M. (2017). Parental control vs. teen self-regulation. Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. https://doi.org/10.1145/2998181.2998352

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