Apps Stirring Up Trouble in Schools

This year’s hottest social media can fill the school day with drama and distraction. 
By Caroline Knorr 
Apps Stirring Up Trouble in Schools

Ask any middle or high school teacher what their biggest classroom challenge is, and it’s pretty much guaranteed they’ll say “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).

No wonder teachers have such an uphill battle keeping tweens and teens focused in class. 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.

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.

Yik Yak Not Appropriate for Kids

Common Sense Media

 

Parents need to know that Yik Yak is a free, local social-networking app that lets users post “anything and everything” anonymously, including a lot of explicit content that’s clearly not for kids. Yik Yak users post brief, Twitter-like comments, which are distributed to any 500 people using Yik Yak closest to them geographically (or more than 500 people, with in-app purchase). Yik Yak works via GPS to identify where the user is each time he or she opens the app and posts messages (called “yaks”) to other nearby users. People read and “upvote” or “downvote” other people’s posts to rate them. Message content ranges from simple questions (“Where are all the spring breakers?”), personal opinions, and local information, to negative messages aimed at specific people, sexually explicit messages, and posts about seeking or using drugs and alcohol. Unless the user’s location is toggled off for each post, it can be seen by others. According to Yik Yak‘s terms, users must be at least 17, although there’s no age verification on the app itself (there’s an initial content warning on the iTunes App Store that requires users to confirm that they’re 17 by tapping OK; there’s no verification or warning on Android devices). Bottom line: Yik Yak is not appropriate for kids.

Is There an App for That?

Harvard Magazine

THE LOST GENERATION. The Greatest Generation. Generation X. And now…the App Generation.

“Are kids growing up in the digital age really different?” asks Howard Gardner, Hobbs professor of cognition and education. Six years ago, he and then-student Katie Davis, Ed.D. ’11 (now an assistant professor at the University of Washington) set out to explore the question, and in their new book, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale), they argue that the answer is unambiguously yes.

“This is a generation that expects and wants to have applications,” says Gardner. Applications, more commonly known as apps, are shortcuts designed for accomplishing specific tasks. They’re ubiquitous, powerful, and strongly structured, and the authors argue that they’re changing the way we think. “Young people growing up in our time are not only immersed in apps,” they write, “they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps, or perhaps, in many cases, a single, extended, cradle-to-grave app.”

The app mindset, they say, motivates youth to seek direct, quick, easy solutions—the kinds of answers an app would provide—and to shy away from questions, whether or large or small, when there’s no “app for that.” In a wide-ranging cultural critique, the authors identify myriad resulting effects loosely structured around three of the stages of psychosocial development proposed by Gardner’s mentor Erik Erikson in 1950—here called identity, intimacy, and imagination.

They investigated the first two themes primarily through interviews with adolescents and focus groups of adults who work with teens. In terms of identity, Gardner and Davis argue that youth today are polished and packaged, in line with the cool, suave look of online profiles. In “Reflecting on Your Life” sessions with Harvard freshmen (see “The Most Important Course,” May-June 2011, page 56), Gardner writes, he encountered students “with their lives all mapped out—a super-app.” But the external polish often hides deep-seated anxiety, outwardly expressed as a need for approval. In their conversations with camp counselors and teachers, Gardner and Davis were repeatedly told that youth today are risk-averse; the app generation, said one focus group participant, is “scared to death.”

In exploring intimacy, Gardner and Davis saw repeated signs of greater isolation. Although social media can enhance friendships and family relationships, digital media can give the impression of closeness while promoting only shallow connections. Online relationships are often conducted at arm’s length, allowing youth to avoid the deeper emotional investment and vulnerability of more complicated, in-person relationships. (This emotional distance can also facilitate racist and sexist language that would be unacceptable in person.)

The book’s most unexpected results come from its study of imagination. Prompted by Gardner’s curiosity about how his high-school literary magazine might have changed in the 50 years since he was editor, the authors examined hundreds of samples of adolescent visual art and fiction between 1990 and 2010. Using a blind coding scheme to measure changes in topics such as subject, composition, and narrative flow, the authors concluded that graphic art has become more imaginative and diverse in the past 20 years, whereas creative writing has shown the opposite trend.

Though they acknowledged that all of their work is correlative, not causative, they speculated that the difference may reflect the emergence of online communities like deviantART and tools like Photoshop that increase amateur engagement with graphic media; in contrast, instant messaging and texting have largely supplanted more formal, written communications. The authors suggest that digital tools promote what they call “middle c” creativity, between the “little c” creativity of everyday problem-solving and the “Big C” of groundbreaking achievements. Though software may lower the bar for creative engagement, they write, users may never move beyond the tools’ inherent limitations.

“When do things that are optional become blinkers on how we see the world?” asks Gardner. He and Davis argue that people can be app-enabled, using apps as tools to eliminate tedious tasks and catalyze new forms of exploration, or app-dependent, relying heavily on the available tools as a substitute for skill and reflection. And the authors argue that automation itself is a dual-edged sword. “Who decides what is important?” they write. “And where do we draw the line between an operation”—using a GPS to navigate to Boston’s North End, for instance—“and the content on which the operation is carried out?”—orienting oneself in the city. Gardner points out that many of today’s teens have never been lost, either literally or metaphorically, and that many don’t even see the point of a “random walk,” an experience that he argues can build independence and resilience.

Apps are here to stay, the authors make clear, and the question now is how to make use of them in a productive, creative way. As an educator, Gardner favors what he calls a “constructivist” approach to learning—in which knowledge is acquired through exploration—and he believes that apps, by shortcutting discovery, can diminish this engagement with the world. Before downloading an app, he says, people should ask themselves what they would do without it: if they had to obtain directions or contact a friend, for instance, without a smartphone. “Even though a well-demonstrated toy or well-designed app has its virtues,” he and Davis write, “there is also virtue—and even reward—in figuring out things for yourself on your own time, in your own way.”