Is my child ready to use Instagram, Snapchat and Musical.ly?

All three of these popular apps are intended for people of 13 and older, according to their terms and conditions. Recent information from the NSPCC suggests that about half of parents are not sure what the age restrictions are https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-we-do/news-opinion/social-media-age-limit/. This is not helped by there being no proper age verification on most social media apps. It is sometimes difficult for parents to work out what apps actually do and what risks their children might be exposed to. These three apps might be thought to be a photo-sharing app, a messaging app and a music video app. In fact all three have multiple social media features that can cause issues. On all the apps a young person might well see inappropriate content. Because the manufacturers state that the app is only for 13+, if content is unsuitable for users younger than this, it will not be removed by the manufacturer, even if reported. If another user reports your child as having an under-age account then the app is perfectly within its rights to delete your child’s account and prevent them from creating another one.

All the apps have privacy settings which prevent some other users being able to contact each other. However, these are not switched on automatically and must be switched on by the user. Even if an account has been made private, the profile picture and some biography/personal information is usually still visible. You may wish to consider your child using a profile picture without their face and reducing the amount of information showing in the biography.
Even once these settings are switched on there is a chance that a friends request can be sent to a user from a stranger; this means a person using the app needs to be confident deleting any requests of this type. All the apps have the ability to contact others and so even if a user is speaking to someone they know, there is still a risk of bullying, particularly as part of a group chat with multiple people, where a friend of a friend can join the group who your child might not know.

All the apps also use locations services (sometimes known as GPS or geofilters) in some way: this potentially can show other users where your child lives and can be used by adults grooming children to target a young person.

It is not just written messages that can be exchanged. All these apps have the ability to share images and video and live streaming/video chat (with Muscial.ly the user needs to download another app Live.ly). This allows your child to watch live streams of other users (this means they cannot be checked in any way first) and also to livestream to other users. During the livestreams other users can comment, ask questions etc in the chat window so it is not a one-way conversation. This can lead to people having very inappropriate conversations with your children and asking them for images or videos of themselves or moving them into a more private environment.

The apps all use strategies to encourage frequent usage. In Snapchat, for example, users get symbols next to their friends showing if they are best friends (hearts) or if they have a Snapstreak (flames), which is 3 or more days where users have messaged each other. Snapstreaks can last for hundreds of days and there is a pressure for users to keep them going. This can have the effect that a user will choose to share passwords if they are going to be on holiday somewhere they cannot use the app, for example abroad with no wifi. This can then have knock on effects that another person could access their account and cause problems by posting inappropriate or unpleasant information and, if the password is used for more than one account, could access your child’s other accounts.

Muscial.ly and Instagram encourage using # hash tags to link to other people’s content and encourage users to do various challenges. In the image above the users on Muscial.ly, known as Musers, are encouraged to upload a video of themselves miming/dancing etc. to Little Mix’s new song, which may be appropriate.
Unfortunately, although many of these features can be lots of fun if used safely and appropriately, they can also be used to bully, groom and share inappropriate content so it is important that you consider whether the particular child can understand the risks, will leave any settings switched onto protect them, and have the capacity to ignore requests or conversations from someone they don’t know.

Our recommendation is that if you are considering allowing your child to use any of these apps, check the age rating. Check the App store or Google Play to see what the app is rated or look on the website for that app. Instagram is rated Parental guidance on the GooglePlay store. Apps rated Parental Guidance need to be checked thoroughly because they vary a great deal.

If you are thinking about giving a higher age-rated app to a younger child, download it first to see what the pitfalls might be and so that you can ensure you understand all the settings before you sit down with your child and create an account with them and talk them through the issues. In addition, switch on privacy settings and switch off GPS/location services. Check the apps periodically by accessing via your child’s phone or tablet: check content being shared by your child and their friends and check the friends/followers list. Do not rely on being a friend, follower or subscriber of your child’s account: if the child has set up an additional account you don’t know about, you won’t see it and you won’t be able to see any private messages. Note that with Snapchat you will not be able to see messages unless they are saved/screenshotted; this is one of the features of Snapchat. Instagram has recently also created disappearing messages, photos and videos. We are dealing with bullying, grooming and sharing of inappropriate and illegal images on all of these apps.
In summary:

  • Do you understand how the app works and what the risks are?
  • Does your child understand the risks?
  • Is your child likely to change the settings?
  • Will your child answer a message from someone they don’t know?
  • What will your child do if they see inappropriate content?