Apps stirring up trouble in schools

Ask any middle or high school teacher about their classroom frustrations, and you'll probably hear "cellphones." Makes sense. Today, 95 percent of teens have access to a cellphone, and nearly half say they're on them "constantly." Putting aside for a moment the need to find solutions to this problem, inquiring minds want to know: What the heck is on kids' phones that they can't go an entire class without them?

Two words: killer apps. Specifically, the ones that play into the tween and teen brain's need for stimulation and peer approval and its weakness for thinking through consequences -- in other words, stuff that lets them gossip, socialize, play games, and -- if they're so inclined -- not work too hard. These apps are designed to capture kids' attention and hold it for as long as possible. (Learn about the tricks social media designers use to keep kids hooked.) And once an app gains critical mass (like, when every kid in school is on it), your social life takes a major hit if you don't, for example, play Fortnite, keep up a Snapstreak, or stalk your crush on Find My Friends. And, honestly, it takes a pretty steadfast kid to resist tapping into the internet hive mind for answers to tough homework questions (especially when everyone else seems to be doing it).

RELATED: Top-rated educational games your kids will love 

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To stay a few steps ahead, teachers are doubling down on their efforts to keep kids focused, starting with strategies for managing device distraction and teaching kids self-control and media balance. But you can help your student by discussing this issue at home. In fact, by simply being aware of some of the key apps that tend to stir up trouble in schools, whether due to social drama, distraction, or something worse -- like cheating -- you can start a conversation with your kid that could save them and the teacher a lot of headaches. And while you don't have to know every single detail of all the popular apps, it helps to have an awareness of when, why, and how they're being used and to help your kid manage their own use and that of their friends. Most teachers would probably agree that the internet has been a mostly positive aspect of the middle and high school years. But students, with the support of parents, need to use it responsibly. (Learn more ways to help kids manage their app use and stay focused in school.)

Check out some of the apps that can potentially stir up drama in schools this year:

Snapchat. The original disappearing-message app has metamorphosed into a megaportal for chatting, finding your friends on a map, sharing images, reading the news, watching videos, and much, much more. As one of the most important apps for teens, it takes up a significant portion of their day. One of those time-consuming activities that occupy students during the school day is Snapstreaks, which require users to trade snaps within a 24-hour period. The longest streaks number in the thousands of days -- and some kids maintain streaks with multiple people.

Tik Tok - including musical.ly. What started as a lip-synching app is now a hugely popular, full-fledged video-sharing service. The ability to "go live" at any time -- meaning to stream yourself live (yes, on the internet) -- has added a whole 'nother level to the time tweens and teens can spend dancing, singing, pranking, and performing skits to music or other recorded sounds. While much of the content is fine, a lot of it is extremely iffy for kids, and when you watch it, you can see plenty recorded during the school day.

RELATED: How to talk to your kids about online privacy 

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Your kid could be spied on. Smart toys including My Friend Cayla, Hello Barbie, and CloudPets are designed to learn and grow with your kid. Cool, right? Unfortunately, many of these toys have privacy problems. As the 2015 data breach of Vtech's InnoTab Max uncovered, hackers specifically target kids because they offer clean credit histories and unused Social Security numbers that they can use for identity theft. These toys also collect a lot of information about your kid, and they aren't always clear about when they do it and how they use it.
Protect yourself. Make sure you buy a toy that has a good privacy policy that you understand. Only provide required information, not the optional stuff they ask for, and turn off the toy when it's not being used.
Your kid could get accused of a crime. Everyone has the right to privacy, especially in their own home. But home assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Mattel Aristotle are designed to butt their noses into conversations. These devices collect -- and store -- untold amounts of data. It's unclear what the companies do with the extraneous "noise" they pick up. And if it's subpoenaed, they might have to hand it over. Say your kid jokes about terrorism or something else illegal; if there's an investigation into those activities, the companies might have to cough up the transcripts. In Arkansas, a prosecutor asked for a murder suspect's Echo smart speaker in case its information could shed light on the crime. The suspect agreed to hand over the recordings, and Amazon was compelled to make them available.
Protect yourself. Turn off your home assistant's microphone when you're not using it. You also can prune your data in your devices' app settings, deleting stuff you don't want to store on your phone or in the companies' cloud servers. Or choose not to use a home assistant until the privacy regulations are ironed out.
Your kid could get hurt. With location-aware social media such as Twitter, Kik, and Facebook, kids can reveal their actual, physical locations to all their contacts -- plenty of whom they don't know personally. Imagine a selfie that's location-tagged and says, "Bored, by myself, just hanging out looking for something fun to do."
Protect yourself. Turn off location sharing on your kids' devices, both in the phone settings and in the apps they use, so their status updates and photos are not automatically tagged with their locations. Make sure your kids never tell strangers their address, their school name, where they hang out, or where they're going to be. Teach kids to choose "no" when asked to share their locations.
Your kid could lose out on opportunities. Posting wild and crazy pics from prom '17 paints a picture for potential admissions counselors, hiring managers, and others whom teens want to impress. They may not care that your kid partied -- only that he showed poor judgment in posting compromising images.
Protect yourself. Tell your kid not to share photos of questionable activities on the internet. If those kinds of photos do wind up online, tell your kid to ask his or her friends either to take them down or not to tag them so the photos can't be traced back. And remember to model responsible online sharing; don't share photos of your kid without asking permission, and share them with a limited audience -- for example, only grandparents.
Your kid could be sold short. Schools are increasingly using software from third-party providers to teach, diagnose potential learning issues, and interact with students. This software includes online learning lessons, standardized tests, and 1:1 device programs. And the companies that administer the programs are typically allowed to collect, store, and sell your kids' performance records. Wondering about all those offers for supplemental reading classes you're receiving in the mail? Maybe your kid stumbled on her reading assessments -- and marketers are trying to sell you "solutions." Curious why Harvard isn't trying to recruit your kid? Maybe they already decided she's not Ivy League material based on her middle school grades. (Learn about our Student Privacy Initiative.)

Protect yourself. If you know that your kid is going to be using third-party programs at school, find out what the software opts them into and what they can opt out of. Tell your kid to only supply required, not optional, information. If you have the time (and the stomach for it), you could read through the privacy policies of all the software your kid uses at school. Otherwise, talk to the principal about how the school vets companies' policies. If you're not satisfied, raise the issue with other parents (say, at the PTA meeting) to learn how your school can do more to protect student privacy.

Your kid could be limited. As schools automate procedures, they create student records with sensitive -- and potentially damaging -- information. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools are allowed to share certain information without getting parents' consents. That means that an individual education plan (IEP), attendance records, a disciplinary record, prescribed medication, or even a high body mass index could be disclosed and used to unfairly disqualify your kid from opportunities, such as advanced classes, government services, or special schools.

Protect yourself. Schools are required to send parents information on how they handle student privacy. Find out what information your school collects, how it's stored, who gets to see it, and what future administrators are allowed to do with it. Under FERPA, you have the right to request, correct, or add an amendment to your kid's records through your district's educational department.

Your kid could be humiliated. Sharing fun stuff from your life with friends is fine. But oversharing is never a good idea. When kids post inappropriate material -- whether it's a sexy selfie, an explicit photo session with a friend, an overly revealing rant, or cruel comments about others -- the results can be humiliating if those posts become public or shared widely.
Protect yourself. Talk to your kids about keeping private things private, considering how far information can travel and how long it can last, and how they can talk to their friends about respecting one another's personal privacy.
Your kid's data could wind up in the wrong hands. The Cambridge Analytica scandal that involved scraping information from people's profiles on Facebook proves that you can never be sure how companies are protecting your data, who they're sharing it with, and what information they're giving to third parties. 

Protect yourself. When you sign up for a social media account, only provide the basic information needed to set up your profile. Services such as Facebook ask for a lot of information, but often it's not required to register. When you use third-party apps, such as a downloadable quiz on Facebook, review the information the app says it's taking from your profile. If it's over-reaching, for example taking data it doesn't really need or taking your friend's data, just say no. 

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Games such as Fortnite and HQ Live Trivia Game Show (HQ for short). Fortnite has all the hallmarks of being a teacher's worst nightmare: It's easy to play, highly social, and super compelling. The hugely popular survival game is played in short bursts (until you die -- which is often), so it's tailor-made for students trying to get a bit of fun in between lunch and algebra class. Some schools are banning the game, leading to knockoff versions that get around the school network's blacklist. HQis the smash-hit trivia game that's played for real prize money. Each 12-minute game is hosted live as hundreds of thousands of players log in to answer 12 multiple-choice questions on a wide variety of trivia topics. Games usually take place twice on weekdays and once on weekends (the company experiments with different airtimes to keep players on their toes). Sponsors including Nike and Warner Bros., and big jackpots timed with massive events such as the NBA finals, show that HQ is actively cultivating a young audience.

Homework helpers such as PhotomathSlader, and, of course, Google. What do you do if you've been goofing off all day, or just feverishly multitasking, and can't finish your geometry problems? Look 'em up. Apps that supply all the answers are only a few taps away. And don't even get us started on home assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home, all of which can be programmed to provide tutor-like assistance.

People finders such as Find My Friends and Mappen. Kids love being in touch with their friends 24/7/365, and location apps make it easy to arrange get-togethers and make plans with your posse. But these apps have a dark side, too. Kids feel pressured to be "on" all the time, partly because of friends' expectations that one should always be available. Stalking -- either of your kid or by your kid -- can be a major issue. And, riskiest of all, some location-aware apps encourage face-to-face meet-ups with strangers.

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