When you ask a couple how they met, it's pretty common for them to answer, "On the Internet". So, it's no surprise that online dating has trickled down to teens.
And though most opt for Snapchat or Instagram to widen their social circles, some are curious enough to try one of the many messaging apps that promise to help them "make new friends". While these apps are designed more for casual communication than are the mainstream fee-based dating services such as Match and OkCupid, they make it super easy to text, video-chat, and share pics with strangers.
At this point, most parents would say "no way" and stop reading right now. But these apps are a fact of life for many teens (especially LGBTQ youth who may not have a supportive community at school). So even if your kid doesn't use one, they may get exposed to one through their friends.
Also, the thrill of meeting new people in a seemingly consequence-free environment may pique the interest of any teen who thinks a cool new friend is only a download away. That's why it's really important to discuss the very real risks these apps pose. Here are just a few:
– Most of the "make-new-friends" apps aren't intended for teens, but it's easy to get around age restrictions, because registration generally involves just entering a birth date. This means adults can pose as teens – and vice versa.
– Most are location-based – meaning they connect with people who are near you – which increases the potential for a real-life meeting with a stranger.
– Because teens often share multiple social media handles on these apps, they can give strangers access to more personal information and intimate conversations.
– Some of them have mature content like drugs and nudity.
– The barrier to entry is very low: They're mostly free and allow essentially anyone to join.
– Less dangerous but still troubling is the heavy emphasis on looks as a basis for judgment.
So, what can you do? You can try to prevent your teen from installing dating apps by using parental controls or setting up restrictions that block off-limit sites or require them to get approval for all apps they download (learn how to do this in iOS and Android). These solutions aren't foolproof, but they add a layer of difficulty that some teens may deem too high.
If you learn your teen is using dating apps, take the opportunity to talk about using social media safely and responsibly – and discuss what's out of bounds. Keep lines of communication open, especially since teens sometimes hide these apps in "vaults" or apps that look harmless (such as a calculator). Talk to them about how they approach dating and relationships and how to create a healthy, fulfilling one – and note that these usually require more than a swipe.
Below are some of the dating, "make new friends", and hook-up apps that teens are using. Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are plenty more like these in the app stores.
– Hot or Not: This app was originally a website (and still is) and has gone through lots of iterations. It's owned by the developers of Badoo, another dating app/site, and they share many dating profiles between them. They both rely on swiping left or right and location sharing and are almost exactly the same in terms of how they look and function.
What parents need to know: You can log in to both Hot or Not and Badoo using email or Facebook. If you sign up via email, you have to enter a birth date that indicates you're over 18, though there's no verification.
When teens 13 and older try to log in to Badoo via Facebook, they can, but the Hot or Not app doesn't allow it. However, Hot or Not is also an app within Facebook, so teens under 18 can access it there. Teens can set the age preference of potential matches anywhere from 18 to 80, and most matches during testing were about 50 miles away.
– Kik: Part text-messaging app, part social network, Kik gives users the opportunity to talk to both friends and strangers. Kids like it because it's free, it's popular with their friends, and they can quickly and efficiently add cool content – memes, viral videos, images, and more – to their texts without any message or character limits. Unlike many messengers, they don't need to enter a phone number to sign up. It also contains public groups that host a wide variety of mature content.
What parents need to know: Although not an official hook-up app, Kik is known for creating hook-up opportunities; having a ton of mature content, including nudity and drug use; and even hosting child-porn trading groups. It's also difficult for parents to see what teens are doing in the app, so it's hard to make sure your teen is using it safely. It's intended for users 13 and up.
– MeetMe: MeetMe's tagline, "Meet, chat, and have fun with new people," says it all. It's also both an app and a site. Skout and MeetMe are affiliated, so users can share their profiles between them. There are several ways to interact with other users: You can chat with locals, watch livestreams (or go live yourself), chat, or use the "Quick" feature to "meet people face-to-face right now". Users can also give each other virtual gifts that cost real money.
What parents need to know: Though a list of safety tips pops up when you log in, there's a ton of mature content, an emphasis on meeting strangers, and various ways to spend money. During our review there were lots of scantily clad women livestreaming and lots of profiles with various drugs as one of the profile pictures. Like many others, the service says it's for people 18 and up, but there's no age verification, and many users post handles to other social media accounts.
– MyLOL is owned by the same developers as Spotafriend, but it works differently and is also a website. Users are supposed to be between 13 and 19. You can add friends, look at profiles and chat with people, or visit the Shouts feature, which is a live feed of other users' comments, which are frequently just "hmu" ("hit me up", slang for "send me a message"). Teens can use settings to let only friends see their profiles, but they can filter who can chat with them only by gender and age. There are also video ads.
What parents need to know: There are plenty of scantily clad teens here, too, and one profile for a "17-year-old" indicated she's actually 32. Also, there are profiles with no pictures, so it's impossible to tell the user's age at all. A few profiles had references to marijuana use, and many teens shared their handles for other social media platforms, making more personal information available to strangers.
– Skout: The Skout app and site offer several ways to connect with other users, including "saying hi" via someone's profile, watching livestreams (or going live), chatting with people who have "liked" you back, or using the "Buzz" feature to access a feed of local users (that appears to be a Facebook feed) who are mostly posting selfies. It's also location-based.
What parents need to know: In its Safety Tips section, Skout claims to separate teens from adults so they can't interact, but that no longer seems to be the case. And, like most of the other dating apps here, it's easy to enter a fake birth date anyway.
– Spotafriend: Spotafriend's app store description says it's "not a teen dating app," but it does use the swiping functionality and location tagging that many dating apps use. It's also meant for "teens only," but entering a birth date is optional. When registering, it requires a selfie of you holding up a certain number of fingers, but the profile picture doesn't need to match that photo.
What parents need to know: Depending on what age you enter when registering, the profiles you see are filtered, so a 13-year-old sees users 13 to 16, and a 16-year-old sees users 16 to 19. Profile pictures include scantily clad teens and descriptions like, "I'm so lonely," and "Let's pop some xans" (as in, the prescription drug Xanax). Girls' profiles often include "Don't send me your nudes", which implies that it does happen. Teens often include other social media info as well.
– Tinder: Tinder is a dating app that lets you browse pictures of potential matches within a certain-mile radius of your location. You can register via Facebook or a phone number (a phone number is required either way). Users are prompted to enter a school name; nearby colleges come up as choices, but you can skip that step. And you can choose to see profiles from ages 18 to 50.
What parents need to know: You swipe right to "like" a photo or left to "pass." If a person whose photo you "liked" swipes "like" on your photo, too, the app allows you to message each other. Meeting up (and possibly hooking up) is pretty much the goal. Many apps have copied this swiping style, so if you see it in another app, it's best to take a second look.
– Yubo: As with many others apps, Yubo involves swiping, chatting, location sharing, and livestreaming. In this app teens can livestream together, so you see several streams all at once, and those users are interacting with each other and viewers. Teens can also purchase "Turbo" packs with real money, which "increases your visibility".
What parents need to know: Though Yubo has tried to improve its image by offering parent and teen guides about using the app safely, it's still a risky business for teens. While the app description says there are two separate areas for teens age 13 to 17 and people age 18+, there's no age verification. Also, the age slider to watch livestreams goes from 13 to 25, which implies teens and adults can interact via livestreaming. The parent guide also says you need to use a real name, photo, and date of birth to use the app, but it's easy to fake all three. – Common Sense Media/Tribune News Service