We’ve all heard about Facebook and Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Certain apps and social media platforms are as ubiquitous as, well, the smartphone you’re probably clutching in your hand right now.
But kids flock to some apps that we parents are sometimes woefully unaware of. The Musical.ly app may be one of those.
On the surface, this playful music video maker seems really fun. It’s phenomenally popular among teens and pre-teens (even though you’re supposed to be at least 13 to set up an account). It lets kids create 15-second vids of themselves lip-syncing, dancing, miming and showcasing various skill sets to their favorite tunes. And then when they’re finished creating their works of synced-up art, they can sit down and scroll through, oh, two, three or a thousand hours of videos that other kids have created.
You might think, then—with the number of videos and their bite-sized aspect—that the addictive side of not being able to stop flicking on to the next clip would be the biggest problem here. I mean, everything else seems so cute and fun, right?
Well, the truth is, there are a lot more problematic trapdoors in this digital dance floor than you might imagine. Blame it on the app makers’ lack of online supervision, the fact that kids will be kids, or the reality of mankind’s fallen nature, but this app is filled with major potential danger for young users.
First of all, let me talk about my personal stroll around this app.
Musical.ly has been around since 2014, and in those four years its community has grown to well over 200 million users. That would mean there’s a whooole lot of videos to watch, and I realized I probably couldn’t watch them all over a weekend. So I decided to sign up as a 14-year-old girl, just to see what kind of content the app might push my way.
The first couple of videos I saw were surprisingly fun. A few rap lyrics in the background seemed a bit edgy, but by-and-large. the videos featured regular kids doing robot moves, playing with cute pets, performing acrobatics and some tightly choreographed dance moves.
After dedicating a bit more time, however, my cheery grin began to slip.
The rap lyrics started including f-words, n-words and other crude language. Worse, the song’s sexualized references were, in some cases, translated into the teen and pre-teen movements I saw onscreen. Those movements ranged from hip thrusts and sexualized touches to full-on same-sex gropes. As I stuck with it, I saw drag queens, shirtless 10-year-old boys flexing and incredibly foul-mouth comedy routines. And when I got to the point of reading suicide quotes presented by sad looking, depressed kids, well, I had seen enough.
Again, this was all pushed to a supposed 14-year-old user. And when I read some of the comments linked to the videos of kids who weren’t quite as adroit, pretty or talented, I also started seeing words that fell far shy of being … kind. (To give credit where credit is due, other commenters pushed back against the hurtful trolls—something that made me want to pat the good guys on the back and say, “Well done.”)
I should also note here that quite a few people have voiced great concern over this app. One dad reported that his 7-year-old daughter was messaged by a stranger that she initially assumed was another kid digging her performances. With time, though, the very adult creeper started asking for inappropriate pictures.
A mom named Anastasia Basil also posted her Musical.ly discoveries on a site called Medium. She noted seeing everything from teen anorexia to kids self-harming, from children as young as 8 sexually objectifying themselves to “boys putting knives to girls’ throats.”
So, what’s to be done? Well, stay aware and … stay away.
Susan McLean, a former policewoman who now teaches cyber safety to schoolchildren and their parents, laid out her version of that warning in a New Daily article like this:
Don’t be a parent with regrets. I deal with them all the time and it’s hard to explain to them that they can’t undo the damage done. If your child is under 13, get off it. It’s already illegal, and there are things on there that they just shouldn’t see. If they’re over 13, get on it yourself and convince yourself you’re happy with the environment. I certainly wouldn’t want my child exposed to it.
That seems to say it all.