14 apps kids love... and moms need to know about right now

by Lisa Fogarty
Aug 10, 2016 at 10:30 a.m. ET

It's back-to-school time again — and in today's classroom, technology has become as much of a school supply as pencils and a fresh notebook. The Pew Research Center confirms that 95 percent of teenagers are online, and this number has remained consistent since 2006. Three out of 4 teens are using the internet on cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices. And while many schools are working to ban cellphones in the classroom, potentially improving test scores, it's safe to say most kids are using their phones in or around class as much as possible.

As a parent, no matter how savvy you are about privacy settings or how open a relationship you have with your child, tween or teen, you may not know exactly how some of their favorite apps work — or why the heck they're spending hours on them.

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Allow us to provide your cheat sheet to the most popular apps kids are using — the good, the bad and the "delete this one from their cellphone now." Here's what you need to know about them so you can better understand your child's tech habits. 

1/15 :Kik

Kik may already be on your parent radar for a frightening reason: it was in the news recently after a 13-year-old girl named Nicole Madison Lovell was kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by an 18-year-old man who she'd exchanged texts with on this popular app. But there's a good reason why your teen is obsessed with Kik: it, literally, satisfies every tech need your child has: from allowing them to chat one-on-one or with a group of friends, to sharing photos, gifs, videos, and games, to listening to music, to meeting new friends who share their interests.

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Yeah, about that last point: it's the one with which you should be most concerned because, as of now, Kik allows total strangers to remain anonymous and message anyone they want — with any message they want. For obvious reasons, this could be disastrous, but it is also reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, when we could receive AOL messages from random folks and then had to use our best judgment when deciding whether to respond. 

2 /15: Musical.ly

2/15 :Musical.ly

Your budding music enthusiast is probably using Musical.ly, which is the #1 app in the App Store charts in 19 countries, to create and share their own music videos and discover new music and vids. Users, who call themselves "Musers," often use popular songs, special effects (slow mo, time warp, and hyper speed), and voice distortion to conceptualize and shoot video clips that are between 7-15 seconds.

They can then share their videos with friends through Twitter, Vine, Whatsapp, Instagram, and Facebook. If they aren't into public sharing, they also have the option of saving their videos on the app for their own private enjoyment. Of course, the app also allows them to discover new videos and followers. Judging by Musical.ly's Twitter, the majority of Musers are tweens and young teens and videos are often goofy and fun.

3 /15: Instagram

3/15 :Instagram

You know it, you may even love and use it yourself — and your kids are also digging Instagram, the app that allows you to post photos, videos, and captions and access the media of its 400 million users around the globe. The wonderful thing about the app, for parents, is that users can make their accounts private and choose not to accept personal messages, comments, or photos from strangers — a positive considering how anyone can post anything about your photo without your approval if you don't control your privacy settings.

In addition to following friends and using hashtags to find IG users who share their same interests, many kids follow celebrities because Instagram makes them feel as if they have access to their personal universe. A plus when your child is following Taylor Swift and her cats — not-so-much-a-plus when they're tracking the moves of a celeb famous for taking off her clothing. 

4/15 :WhatsApp

You can easily check your kid's phone text messages and Facebook messages. But WhatsApp is a messaging app designed to offer a higher level of privacy to its users — which satisfies a crucial desire for most children and teens. Kids can exchange unlimited text, photo, video, and audio messages to individuals or groups for free, they're always logged in, and they don't need usernames or pins to connect.

Although you're supposed to be at least 16 to use the app, one study revealed 76 percent of children on WhatsApp were between the ages of 11 and 14 — and kids are loving the ability to separate themselves from their parents and large groups and use a ad-free app that allows them to send any kind of message to friends. If you're thinking, oh great, sexting and sexy selfies, well, yeah, that's definitely a concern, as is the fact that a password-free app means anyone can grab their phone, post messages, and pose as them, and they can post their location on WhatsApp. 

5 /15: ASKfm

5/15 :ASKfm

Kids are naturally curious about each other, but would probably never dream of asking them certain questions in person — that's where ASKfm comes in. The app allows children ages 12 and up to ask their friends questions — anonymously, if they so choose — and respond to questions with likes, photos, videos, GIFs, or plain old text. If a child doesn't like the question being asked, they can opt to ignore the sender. Depending on the age of the user, questions range from "Who is you real best friend?" to "Are you in love with anyone?" 

6/15 :Snapchat

You may have two terrible words etched in your brain when you think Snapchat: sexting app. Of course, most teens and tweens are not using the flash video app as a convenient conduit to get their sexual messages out into the ether, and the app is a hit because it allows users to shoot and post photos and video clips, and then decide whether they want them to disappear after one second or up to 10 seconds. 

Knowing that their images won't stay around forever, many kids feel liberated to share without the burden of a tech trail — if only that were completely true. Of course, anyone can capture a screenshot of their image and there are even apps that help save Snapchat vids and images — so young folks need to understand they aren't always safe.

Snapchat is intended for teens 13 and older, but it isn't going to prevent a child who makes up a fake birthday from accessing the app (if an underage user puts in his/her real birthdate, they'll be directed to SnapKidz, a version that doesn't allow them to share photos). The nice thing about Snapchat is that most kids use it to share among a small group of friends or for one-to-one sharing — and they'll usually be notified if someone screenshots their image. 

7 /15: Whisper

7/15 :Whisper

Kids and teens feel like no one understands them and like they're constantly judged — just one of the reasons why Whisper is a popular app that attracts 20 millions users each month. Although you have to be 17 to use the app, kids can fib about their age and what they'll have access to is a platform in which they can share their "real" thoughts, be their "real" selves, and trade advice with others. 

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They can opt to block users and their opinons, but they can't stop people (including much older people) from trying to comment on their posts and getting to know them. In case you're wondering, the secret "whispers" that are shared can range from truly personal anecdotes to comments about societal injustices. 

8 /15: Yik Yak

8/15 :Yik Yak

This app, available on iOS and Android, lets people anonymously view and engage in conversation with anyone who has created a discussion thread within a 5-mile radius.Yik Yak was developed primarily as a way for college students to connect with others in and around their campus, but its developers have since started using geofencing, a technology that allows middle schoosl, high schools, and even some college campuses to be "fenced off" in order to prevent cyberbullying. Taking that idea one step further, Yik Yak also features a word filter that reminds a user if words they are using could be deemed offensive. If that person posts the message regardless, the app can delete it. Quite a few controversies surround Yik Yak these days: in 2015, Western Washington University arrested a person who reportedly used Yik Yak to threaten to lynch the student body president of the school. Since then, several schools have banned the app or cell phones because of the app. 

9/15 :Omegle

Hold onto your hat: you're not going to like this one. Omegle is both an app and a website that allows users to talk to strangers about random topics. All chats are anonymous, unless someone agrees to reveal their identity, and users are supposed to be 13 or older (anyone under 18 is asked to get their parent/guardian's permission, but we can probably count on one hand the times that has happened). Teens and kids can connect Omegle to their Facebook accounts to chat with strangers who share similar interests and, in 2009, a video chat component was added, supposedly to help protect minors from predators. 

As an experiment, I typed in "fashion" and waited to connect with someone. No response. I clicked on a link to chat with a random stranger and was prompted to say "Hi" to the anonymous user. The stranger responded: "M." I responded: "F." His response? "Horny AF." Need I say more? 

10 /15: Keek

10/15 :Keek

Keek is yet another social media networking site that allows people to post short videos of themselves or events happening in their lives and receive likes and comments from friends and strangers. It has been described as a combination of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter and many young people are using the site to upload vids of themselves singing, dancing, and just goofing off by themselves or with friends. Since the site features teens and adults, there's no way to keep your kid from seeing vids that contain "mild" examples of violence, profanity, and nudity (I happened to catch a clip of a woman in a thong getting a laser treatment on her buttocks). Users can subscribe to videos and post unlimited video clips that they can then share on other social media sites. 

11 /15: After School

11/15 :After School

Kids are always looking for ways to de-stress after a long school day, and After School bills itself as an app that allows kids to anonymously post their feelings, concerns, and experiences about their school (in other words, a teacher and principal's worst nightmare). They claim to have a zero-tolerance policy toward cyberbullying, something that became especially necessary after a student from Michigan had her phone number posted to After School by an anon user and began receiving harassing phone calls. The app creates restricted message boards for specific high school campuses and requires that users verify they are teens through their Facebook accounts — adults are not welcome. For some parents, that might be an irksome fact, but After School is reportedly trying to prevent predators who pose as students from infiltrating the site. 


12 /15: Burn Note

12/15 :Burn Note

Since privacy is crucial for a teen or tween, and Snapchat has failed to provide the privacy it promises for many users, Burn Note has stepped in to deliver what it calls "real private messaging." The messaging system, available for iPhone, iPad, and Android, allows users to set a "deletion timer" to decide how long the receiver of a message will be able to hold onto it before it is "deleted forever."

Unlike Snapchat, Burn Note can only be used to send and receive text messages — no video or photo messages are allowed. It also prevents users from taking screenshots of the text by only revealing portions of a message at one time. If you know for a fact that your child doesn't have the Burn Note app, it doesn't mean he or she isn't receiving Burn Note messages from others who do — you don't need to download the app to receive a Burn Note. 

13 /15: Vine

13/15 :Vine

You may have heard of Vine stars like Lele Pons and Shawn Mendes, who have millions of Vine followers and have even scored recording deals and TV contracts because of their popularity. Vine consists of six-second videos that are often creative and funny, but that can also contain nudity and profanity. Kids and teens can upload their own videos and share them with the world, or use the app or website to find others who are creating entertaining videos. Although they can adjust their settings to a private mode so that their vids are only seen by followers they approve, they should know that the automatic default for Vine is public. 

14 /15: Skout

14/15 :Skout

Depending on how you feel about your teen accessing a dating website (or dating, in general), you may not approve of Skout — but I should say right away that the app tries to moderate a teen-only online community (ages 13 and up) that allows them to interact with peers that are their same age. Try as they may to keep a 14 year-old from chatting with an 18-year-old, parents should understand that it isn't always easy to immediately figure out who is lying about their age.

A few comforting things about Skout: it monitors communities for offensive language and photos, fraudulent profiles, and spam and provides general, not specific, information about where users are located. And, while adults may be using Skout to hook up, your teen is probably using it as just another way to communicate with peers and meet new people. 

15/15 :Cheat sheet

Consider this your cheat sheet to kids & social media!

Originally published March 2016. Updated Aug. 2016.