What's App: Kik, Voxer, and Other Messenger Apps

On September 9th, 2013, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide. For months she had been terrorized via social media, despite Rebecca’s mother shutting down Rebecca’s Facebook and monitoring her online presence. After Rebecca’s tragic death, it was revealed that she had been using other social media apps, such as Kik Messenger and Voxer, that Rebecca’s mother hadn’t even heard of, let alone knew were a vehicle for tormenting her daughter.

At Choices and TeenBeing, we don’t ever try to label an app as “bad” or “unsafe” – after all, it isn’t social media itself that creates an issue for teens, it’s the way that teens use it. And messaging apps like Kik, Voxer, or GroupMe are no different. But if you’re looking for trouble, it isn’t hard to find them on these apps.

When used correctly, these apps can be enormously helpful. Each platform is essentially a way to text, but through an app rather than your service provider. In other words, it’s free, and it isn’t tracked, so it can be anonymous. For well-intentioned adults, this can be a great way to text with friends who may be traveling abroad, or to feed your text addiction without racking up the phone bill. But for impulsive teens, it can be a great way to send bullying group texts, chat with strangers, or send pictures—without their parents seeing it on their phone bill.

One reason that these apps can be so scary is that, whereas Facebook and Twitter have become household names, Kik and Voxer are still a mystery to most adults. So when parents take a look at their bill, or even take a look at their teen’s phones, they won’t see anything out of the ordinary, and won’t know where to look for it if they suspect something. Most likely, the anonymity of these apps is much more appealing to teens than their cost-effectiveness.

And the anonymity isn’t just between teens and their parents. It could also be between teens and their messengers. All anyone needs to interact with your teen on Kik (or other messenger apps) is to know their username. They don’t have to know their phone number or be their Facebook friend or even be accepted to chat. Many teens will make their Kik name the same as their Instagram or Twitter handle, or use those platforms to openly share their Kik names. Especially on accounts that aren’t private and have many followers, you will often see “kik me!” written somewhere in the comments, and often by a stranger. That’s where these apps can get really scary.

Not all teens are using these apps for all of the worst reasons. For many, it’s simply a fad and an easy way to communicate. But it is possible to share pictures on most of these apps, and there’s no moderator to make sure that all of the content is rated PG. There’s no verification system to prove that anyone is who they claim to be, which makes it all too easy for everyone to claim that they’re a 15-year old who’s “bored and wants to chat.”

Even if your teen doesn’t use these apps (but especially if they do), it’s important to talk to them about internet safety. Remind them that they may not know who they’re talking to. And even if they’re 100% sure that they know the person on the other side of the screen, remind them that anything on the internet can be saved and shared, whether it be a password or a picture or anything in between.

And most importantly: Remind your teens that they’re not talking to a screen, they’re talking to a person. Even when words don’t show up on a bill or in your text history, they can still deeply affect the people that read them. Whether they’re texting, tweeting, kik-ing, snap chatting, or talking, they should always be encouraged and reminded to treat others with kindness and respect.

Do your teens use these messenger apps? How do you talk to them about internet safety? Let us know in the comments below!