Don't go breaking my heart...online

Girl and boy looking at mobiles

With Valentine’s Day hearts swirling through the air (or not), it’s the time of year when many of us think about relationships—the good, the bad, and the ugly!

It seems Australians are eagerly seeking out their next happy coupling, with nearly three million of us visiting dating sites during December 2016. For adults, there are plenty of sites willing and able to help lonely hearts find a mate. Popular swiping app Tinder tops the list with 764,000 visitors in the last month of the year, followed by PlentyOfFish with 515,000 and Well Hello where 321,000 are searching*. Big numbers of Australians looking for love.

Hopefully, the worst thing most adults will experience is an interminable date that has you running for the restaurant exit. But there are some real risks, including rare but worst-case scenarios like sexual assault, rape, sextortion and money scams.

It seems that finding a friend, romantic or otherwise online, is becoming increasingly popular amongst the teen set as well—and of course, this requires different consideration. Two apps on the market: Spotafriend, which purports to help teens find new friends, and Yellow, are rapidly growing their user base in Australia, and globally. And while it sounds great to expand your social circle, these apps are coming under brightly-lit fire, as media and parents see their potential to be used as dating apps—with a series of heightened risks vis-a-vis the grown-up versions.

Yellow
Yellow is a location-based social networking app that helps users connect to others nearby. While Yellow doesn’t market itself as a dating app, it’s similar in design to Tinder and poses some risks. With the potential for sexual image sharing abuses and “grooming” by online predators, Yellow users should follow the age recommendation and be fully aware about how the app can be used. According to Yellow’s Terms of Use, users between the age of 13 and 17 can use the service, with parental permission.

As parents, we need to be aware of what apps our children are using and speak with them early and often about the potential risks of meeting unknown or verified “strangers online.” Yellow users can report issues like cyberbullying, identity theft and requests for nude images, while parents can fill in a form for assistance via Yellow’s safety centre.

Spotafriend
Spotafriend offers more of the same, with teens able to swipe pictures of others to see who they’d like to befriend. When it’s a match, they can start a private chat within the app. Aimed at teens from 13 to 19, the app bans users over the age of 20. The varied risks in teens reaching out to strangers are similar to Yellow: the potential for sexual content, sexual assault when meeting up with strangers in real-life, and grooming. Hidden chats, otherwise known as ‘dark social’, make it hard for parents, and the network services, to keep sight of potentially unhealthy or dangerous interactions.

Managing the risks
For any teen looking to find friends on these apps or similar, and for the adults who are helping to guide them through this unchartered digital territory, there are ways to use these services in a safer fashion. Remember:

  • Be careful about sharing personal information, such as full name, phone number, email and address and most importantly, any intimate images. Once these compromising images are shared, your teen may lose control of them forever.
  • A high level of trust must be established to help your teen manage the risk of intimate images being posted without consent.
  • Leave personal contact information out of any profile. It’s vital that your teen’s identity is protected, until they’re comfortable enough to share it with another user.
  • They should never meet up with someone they’ve met on an app alone, without telling a trusted adult. But if they do, make sure it’s always in a public space and that a friend or trusted adult knows where they are.

As any adult knows, the world of romance can be rocky. But it’s even more precipitous when you’re 14 and unsure how to navigate through a range of potential risks. To explore, safely learn, manage these potential risks and be prepared for any eventuality—teens and parents need to know what can go wrong when looking for Mr or Miss Right. And hopefully, they’ll find the path to love, and friendship, much smoother (ab)sailing.

For more information about these, and other games, apps and social networking services, visit esafety.gov.au.

To keep across ‘what’s app’ening’, and the latest applications and services teens are using, we’ll be posting more info about age ratings from app stores, and a recurring feature from teens directed at inquiring adults.
 
*Source: Nielsen Online, December 2016

 


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