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Secret apps exploding in popularity among high schoolers

Posted at 6:32 PM, Feb 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-18 22:52:01-05

Pop quiz, parents: Name three popular social media apps.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram continue to be among the most popular applications for teens, and even adults.

But what about alternative messaging apps like After School, Kik, WhatsApp or Omegle? While less well known, they are growing in popularity among young users.

According to the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of teens now have access to a smartphone, while 33 percent are now using  these alternative messaging apps to communicate with peers or even potential predators.

Keeping tabs on an increasingly complex and secretive digital world of social media and mobile apps can be a tall order for parents of teenagers.

Just ask Chris McKenna, a former youth pastor at Cornerstone Church in Caledonia, who's dedicated a large portion of his life in the past two years trying to arm parents across West Michigan with tools and information to keep up.

"All the time, I get a parent who just says ‘I don’t even know where to begin,'" McKenna told FOX 17.

“The problem is the amount of information and the number of apps, and the number of devices, is so vast they just don’t know where to begin, so in paralysis they just don’t do anything.”

McKenna's website, ProtectYoungEyes.com, is his effort to help parents avoid that paralysis feeling by providing strategies for social media use and a run-down of the most popular apps currently being used by teens.

>> Take McKenna's Quiz for Parents: Assess your internet risk

“When you think about it, the issues are the same: Sexual predators are not new, pornography is not new, bullying is not new," he said. "What’s new is there are different doors to these issues."

After School is a smartphone app that has exploded in popularity among high school students in the past year—now used on more than 75 percent of high school campuses nationwide, according to its developers—and it's one of many that allows its users to engage anonymously, McKenna said.

The anonymity, which McKenna says rules the Internet, is what puts teens at a greater risk of being the subject of online bullying, threats and harassment.

“Anonymity is clearly the going trend in apps, whether it’s Yik Yak, After School, Whisper, where I want to divulge all of my secrets, say all kinds of things I’d never say to another person, social media gives me a platform to do that," he said.

“Now you’ve given them the ability to say whatever they want, to whomever they want, without any accountability and naturally that’s going to increase their risk tolerance for what they’re going to say.”

While there's potential for abuse or risk of harassment, cutting off your teen completely from using the apps is likely not your best bet, according to Jesilee Bonofiglio, a Grand Rapids social worker who counsels parents and teens on social media use and abuse regularly.

“It is going back to this social interaction that a lot of these students need, they crave and suddenly they get," she said.

"The teenage brain wants to connect, it needs more experiences and more connections, so now we’ve opened up a whole new universe of connecting with the entire world."

Bonofiglio and McKenna both agree that a parent's best approach is keep communication open with their teen in order to better understand what the apps are being used for and who they're communicating with while using them.

"No matter how much your kid is trying, seeming to push you out of their lives, they still need you. Keep up the communication," she said.

And setting limits is encouraged.

“I’m not going to take the internet out of your hands," McKenna said, recommending parents limit usage to just three or four approved applications only.

"It’s something you need to learn how to use and I want you to use it, but understand the power of what you hold in your hands. Because you’re not saying  the internet is evil and I don’t want you to use it. In fact, I try to say that to teens all the time."

Developers, too, are beginning to acknowledge their responsibility to keep their young users safe.

After being briefly pulled from Apple's app store following complaints, developers of the After School app contend safety is now "in their core DNA."

Michael Luchies, content director for After School, told FOX 17 the app now has a zero tolerance policy for misuse and a five-step process in place to address and eliminate cyber bullying.

“We will block or ban users who violate our community guidelines," Luchies said. "Every post goes through moderation before a student sees it, and there are humans viewing it.”

After School app usage in West Michigan

After School app usage in West Michigan

Luchies said the app is designed to offer a safe place for students to connect. In West Michigan, some schools average anywhere between 200 to more than 500 student users.

But the app continues to be a closed and private network that only high school students can access, which Luchies contends is necessary to keep its users safe from predators.

“We want to improve their lives, we don’t want to just provide a place where they communicate with anyone with no boundaries," he said. "You don’t want to build highways without putting up traffic signs and speed limits.”

For McKenna, it's not just about leveling the playing field for parents, but enlightening teens too.

“One click at a time you can end up somewhere you never started at," he said. "The same happens in conversations through an app like After School where it starts out a certain way, innocent enough, but one click, conversation, post at a time, it’s pretty easy to end up somewhere you never dreamed of starting.”