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Kids apps: What parents need to know

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to keep a closer eye on what your tweens and teens might be doing online, here is a primer.

First thing to know: Facebook is so 2014. While parents may be using it as their main means of social networking, studies made during the past year have shown that teenagers' interest is waning.

So how are tweens and teens interacting? Parents likely know what Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr are, but if you haven't heard of Snapchat, you've got catching up to do. "It's more urgent than ever, as new technology comes out in 2015, for parents to really get involved and watch what their kids are doing," says Karen Sobel Lojeski, an assistant professor of technology and society at Stony Brook University. "There are no filters on the Internet. Teens have access to everything and anything."

Here are 10 apps that are popular now -- or may trickle down to the younger generation in the months to come. (Several are targeted to older users, but there's rarely verification of age, and parents must set parental controls on a child's phone to prevent downloading apps with a 17+ rating.)

Snapchat

Credit: Snapchat

"Everyone has Snapchat," says Massapequa High School junior Brian Mullins, 16. Kids directly send each other pictures or videos that evaporate in seconds. It's like texting with images. "It's cool to share what you're doing and where you are," says classmate Joe Mottola, also 16. Kids at a concert might send their friends a snippet of the show, for instance. Abby Stein, 13, an eighth-grader at Jericho Middle School, says if she's having a bad hair day, she might send a Snapchat of her crazy hair to a friend. Snapchat can be harmless fun, says Donald Gately, principal of Jericho Middle School. "I think it's consistent with their lives. They're kind of in the moment," he says.

CONCERNS Snapchat can be used for sexting. "This is the place where kids show a lot of nudity because they think it goes away quickly," says Renee Clauselle, a Franklin Square psychologist who sees teens in her practice. But recipients can make screengrabs of a Snapchat before it disappears, and it could go viral, Lojeski says. "It's permanent, and you no longer have control of it," she says.

Yik Yak

Yik Yak is supposed to be for college
Credit: Yik Yak

Yik Yak is supposed to be for college students, but high school kids have adopted it as well. It allows users to see anonymous messages from others in the same 1½-mile radius. Nobody but the poster knows who the author is. "Its main focus is like a virtual bulletin board — anything from jokes to campus news," says Zachary Nola, part of the Yik Yak media relations team. One recent funny post: "I'm about to put my GPA up for adoption cause I can't raise it myself." Kids might post about something that happened at school, or an embarrassing story that they want to tell without anyone knowing it's about them.

CONCERNS Yik Yak received negative attention in 2014 after users posted anonymous threats of violence at some high schools, including Mount Sinai and West Islip. It's also raised criticism that kids can anonymously post mean items or criticize teachers. "The anonymity of these posts allows individuals who may have malicious intent to write comments about others that may be hurtful, harassing and something quite disturbing," Miller Place schools Superintendent Marianne Higuera wrote in a letter to district parents in September. Kids also may use Yik Yak to advertise upcoming local parties. And there's quite a bit of profanity. Yik Yak has made an effort to "geofence" middle and high school campuses so students can't use it from the epicenter, where most of the target population is — once they go home, they may be more than 1½ miles from other kids in school, Nola says. Parents can ask their district if it's been geofenced, and the district can request that Yik Yak do so, Nola says.

Vine

Users can record and post 6-second videos that
Credit: Vine Labs

Users can record and post 6-second videos that loop over and over, or they can watch other people's videos on Vine. "I use it for entertainment and amusement," says Hunter Taube, 13, an eighth-grader at Jericho Middle School. He likes to watch sports highlights. Videos are sorted into categories such as Family, Sports and Comedy. One recent Family post shows a kids whose hair is supposedly being blown dry with a leaf blower.

CONCERNS Vine can have profanity. "Vine is going out a little bit," Clauselle says. But at its peak, she says, "kids would be doing all kinds of crazy things to try to be Vine popular -- potentially dangerous things."

Kik

Kik, an instant-messaging app, is similar to texting,
Credit: Kik

Kik, an instant-messaging app, is similar to texting, but it's free when using Wi-Fi, so kids avoid data charges and texting limits. People communicate with user names.

CONCERNS Anyone can contact a user, so kids can get inappropriate content from strangers, says Sgt. Tom Rich, a New Jersey police officer who is a cybersafety expert for stopitcyberbully.com.

Omegle

Users talk to strangers who have similar interests
Credit: Omegle

Users talk to strangers who have similar interests by typing in a keyword on Omegle. They can text or use a webcam. They can talk to random people of different ages and geographic areas. App users may ask for ASL -- short for age, sex and location.

CONCERNS Users may also share nudity and sexual content, Lojeski says. "There's a whole other layer of nefarious stuff that could be going on," she says.

Whisper

Whisper is a confessional app that allows the
Credit: Whisper

Whisper is a confessional app that allows the user to post text superimposed over a photograph. It can be as innocent as this recent post: "When I was 5, I asked my Grandma if she had kids" with a cartoon photo of children. It can be a user admitting to cheating on her boyfriend. "It's everything from people seeking advice to talking about their relationships," says Whisper spokeswoman Tracy Akselrud. They're saying, "I'm experiencing something I can't talk to other people about."

CONCERNS The problem occurs when kids use it to spread gossip, critics says. Whisper users can choose to receive posts from other users from their school, although Akselrud says the app has 130 moderators who review posts, plus technology that flags and rejects proper names. Still, some experts worry. "The ones that raise red flags for me are things like Whisper and Yik Yak and the apps where the sender is completely anonymous," Lojeski says. "They encourage a sort of momentum that is very negative, treating other people badly. It gives them license to treat each other in a way they would never do if they were face-to-face."

Ask.fm

Users can post an anonymous question on another
Credit: Ask.fm

Users can post an anonymous question on another user's profile on Ask.fm. The recipient doesn't know who is asking. Some questions are innocuous: "If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?"

CONCERNS Trouble starts when kids start asking, "Do you think so-and-so is pretty?" or post negative comments on people's pages. Some people answer and comment quite cruelly, Clauselle says. "The person who is talked about really has no control," she says. A lot of people also use the site to bully others, Lojeski and Gately say. "In ninth grade, a lot of people called me fat," says Tami Buitrago, 16, of Massapequa High.

Cuddlr

Cuddlr lets users who want a hug connect
Credit: Cuddlr

Cuddlr lets users who want a hug connect with others in their vicinity willing to meet up and give them one. Even the people behind the app emphasize that it's intended for consenting adults and is rated 17+ by the Apple store. Says co-founder Damon Brown: "From our awareness of users, we have few to none under the age of 18." The description on the app: "Cuddlr springs from the belief that we don't have enough opportunities for safe, consensual, non-scripted, communicative, spontaneous physical affection carrying no further expectation."

CONCERNS Do you want your teen hugging random strangers? "When you have an app that people can locate where you are? I'd be very, very nervous," Lojeski says.

WhatsApp

Kids use WhatsApp to text using Wi-Fi. It's
Credit: WhatsApp

Kids use WhatsApp to text using Wi-Fi. It's especially useful to communicate with friends on vacation in another country. "I use it when I go to Atlantis," says Jericho's Abby Stein. Even though she's in the Bahamas with family during a school break, she can still be in constant touch with friends, she says.

Outpour

Outpour just launched Dec. 10 and is meant
Credit: Outpour

Outpour just launched Dec. 10 and is meant to encourage positive interaction. Users post anonymous messages of gratitude to friends and acquaintances. "The vision is to capture every happy interaction between people and let other people see it and celebrate it," says cofounder Calvin Liu. Its initial demographic target is young adults and adults, but whether teens will adopt it only time will tell.

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