Parents continue to be perplexed by their kids’ propensity to communicate via texting / messaging versus face-to-face communications. No longer content to use their built-in mobile messaging apps (and undoubtedly influenced by their parents’ outrage at high monthly texting bills), teens are turning to a number of texting apps that don’t charge fees and offer unlimited texting but that also make it harder for parents to monitor their activity.
WhatsApp lets users send text messages, audio messages, videos, and photos to one or many people with no message limits or fees. With voice calls, teens can talk to friends and family for free, even internationally; free video calls allows face-to-face conversations for when voice or text just isn’t enough. WhatsApp voice and video calls use your phone’s Internet connection, instead of your cell plan’s voice minutes, so you don’t have to worry about expensive calling charges (but you do have to be concerned with data usage). Although it’s for users 16 and over (and the age minimum was set by WhatsApp), lots of younger teens seem to be using it. The app can be pushy; after you sign up, it automatically connects you to all the people in your address book who also are using WhatsApp. It also encourages you to add friends who haven’t signed up yet. Many parents may find the idea of no limits on messaging — as well as location sharing and constant status updates for teens — unappealing. For other parents, whose teens have run up bills going over a limited texting plan or who contact friends and family internationally, this app may be especially useful. The voice-messaging feature’s impressively clear audio is a plus, as are group texting and check marks that show when recipients open each message.
GroupMe also lets users send direct messages and group messages without message limits or fees. The app is recommended for ages 15 and up; the embedded GIFs and emojis make the app very visually appealing but they do have some adult themes. You can also use the app as a one-stop shop for interacting with your friends, from scheduling events to sending each other money. Some users like GroupMe for its stealth potential, since on-screen notifications pop up without content, which is appealing to some kids. Since there’s no way to delete past posts, there are also concerns about a user’s control over content. The main hazard here might be the high level of connectivity: like WhatsApp, GroupMe lets kids send and receive messages without limits, so there’s no end to how many messages they send or how much they share. This can be great if the app is your main point of content for a limited group of family or friends, and it can be useful for groups who need to keep in touch for a particular task or around a particular activity. Still, the search results for GIFs, images, and videos are full of iffy stuff, and there’s no way to filter results, so this isn’t an option for everyone. Overall, this is a great way to keep in touch, but it’s worth having ongoing conversations with your kids about what’s okay to share digitally.
Finally, Kik Messenger offers a free texting app that doesn’t have limits for direct and group messages; Kik however does charge fees for using some of the basic features, like its sketchpad and document share. Because they are apps, the messages don’t show up on the phone messaging services; that’s good because kids can share and text to their hearts’ content, but it’s not as easy for parents to monitor the traffic. Kik allows communication with strangers who share their usernames to find people to chat with, and the Kik community blog allows users to upload photos of themselves and screenshots of messages to contests, sometimes displaying users’ full names. Kik came to the attention of many parents last year when it was investigated as the tool used to lure a 13-year-old Virginia girl to her murderers. Kik should only be used by teens who can discern the difference between texting people individually, with groups, and within a social networking environment. Stranger danger – Kik definitely adds a kick to “old-fashioned texting,” but teens need some guidance on safety and privacy if they’re going to use it.
Parents need to understand the apps that teens are using to communicate with their peers (and sometimes others they shouldn’t be). Knowing the basics — what they are, why they’re popular, and what problems can crop up when they’re not used responsibly — can make the difference between a positive and a negative experience for your kid.