This week, I was visited by a very distressed client.
Her 11yo daughter was an avid user of an app on her school iPad - an app that so many of her friends are also using.
The app is called Musical.ly. Apparently its use is spreading like wildfire among young children, especially girls.
It is an app that allows kids to records videos of themselves singing, lip sync'ing and dancing. They then share these videos on Musical.ly - so that their 'followers' (who you would hope are just their friends) can see their work. In turn, the kids follow others who post their own videos. They can post comments on the videos they watch.
In allowing their daughter to install this app, the parents had checked the age rating (12+) and decided to allow the download. After all, 12+ seems like a very safe rating for an app - so it must be designed for kids (one would think).
After creating the child's account, they had gone into the settings for their daughter's Musical.ly account and set it to 'Private' - meaning that only 'friends' could view the videos their daughter would post.
They thought this would be enough to protect their daughter while using this app - that this would mean that the girl's videos. They also discussed with the child the importance of only following and being followed by true friends - people she knew is real life!
The trouble with apps like Musical.ly
The trouble with Musical.ly is that you cannot stop a child's profile photo, name and 'bio' appearing for the whole world to see! So, anyone scanning the list of Musical.ly users would easily see which users are young kids.
As can occur with many apps like this one, this child received a 'follow' request from someone that she did not know - someone who appeared to be a cute young boy who was, co-incidentally (!), exactly the same age as the girl. She had accepted his invitation, despite her parents' warnings.
This meant that this 'boy' could see the various videos the child had recorded - sometimes in her school uniform, sometimes in PJ's, and sometimes with her little sister.
Direct messaging in apps like this
What the parents also did not realise is that the Musical.ly app has a 'messaging' feature built into the app - one that allows Musical.ly users to chat with each other in 'private' conversations.
So this 11yo girl had been chatting with this 'boy' over a period of time - during which time, the boy had provided his iCloud email address and suggested that they continue their online conversation via the Messages app instead of Musical.ly. The girl agreed and initiated an Messages conversation - meaning the 'boy' now had the young girl's email address.
It was only when a teacher noticed the child using Messages during a class - and then noticed the tone of the Messages conversation - that alarm bells went off and the parents were alerted. The school was that concerned that they contacted the police.
It's frightening how far this could have gone
In the Messages communications, this 'boy' had been trying to get the 11yo girl to Facetime (ie video chat) with him. He was trying to help her work out why she could not seem to find the Facetime app on her device.
Luckily, this girl's parents were very proactive in 'locking down' features such as Facetime on their children's i-Devices, so that the children have to ask for permission to use this app. At other times, the app is completely inaccessible.
This may have saved this child from an experience that doesn't really bear thinking about.
While this 'boy' may have actually have been an 11yo 'boy', it is highly likely this was an online predator.
Do your kids use Musical.ly?
Musical.ly is supposed to be restricted to 13+ users, and users aged 13-18 are supposed to require parental approval. However, this all means nothing - since anyone can set up a Musical.ly account, and no birthdate is requested.
If you do allow your kids to use Musical.ly, be aware that making the account 'Private' is not enough. Make sure in settings that the 'hide location info' and 'only friends can direct.ly me' settings are On (green).
Their photo should not be included, and any name/bio information should not identify their sex or provide an indication of their age.
Unfortunately, there is no way of stopping kids from changing these settings to become less 'private' - since there is no 'parental control' aspect to this app.
Personally, I would not allow any child under 13 to use this app. For young teenagers, I would suggest close monitoring of any use of the app and any 'followers' in their list that are not real friends.
Want to read more about Musical.ly?
Here is an article containing similar warnings to above, which I found while assisting this iTandCoffee Client.
As this article states, make sure you download and familiarise yourself with any app like this. It is critical to ensure you fully understand what the app involves, and the risks to which you may be exposing your child - both in terms of content and potential predators.
Do you need help or advice
iTandCoffee can help. We offer classes and private appointments, to help parents navigate the tricky area of how to keep their kids safe online. We can also help you with issues around setting up iPad and iPhones in a family environment (including sorting out issues with iCloud!).
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1300 885 420 for further details.
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