Update: May 4, 2016 – A special welcome to parents who saw the “After School” story on CBS 2 or Fox 28 news. Since I’m a Corridor gal, if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know! We’re in this together as a community!
This was one of the hardest posts on apps I’ve ever written. How bad could an app be if it’s totally meant for teens? Where do I draw the line in what I share and what I don’t? How can I share the shocking truth without being gratuitous?
Here’s the deal: on this post, I’m not sharing everything I could. And I’m doing my best to tone down what I am showing you, but the reality is hard: our teenagers, as young as 13 (and maybe younger), are being exposed to this. I’m sorry if you find the content offensive, but please know my intent is to be educational. It may be offensive to some, but we should be more offended that this is passing in front of our kids’ eyes on an increasing basis.
About a year and a half ago, I heard of the app After School, and by the time I went to download it, it was removed from app stores because of threats of violence and the app developers’ inability to monitor/delete inappropriate content. Recently, a mother and educator told me about the problems her school’s been having with the app. I realized it was back, and it wasn’t better than ever.
Here’s the fifth installment of the series Apps Every Parent Needs to Know About, talking (as much as we can, anyway) about the very private app After School.
(To read earlier reviews in this series, click here).
I spend about a day or so researching the apps I write about. There are always other stories, other reports, and other reviews out there, but I want to give you my personal experience using the app. The screenshots are from my time spent in the app–it’s my first hand experience.
In order to even get access to log in to After School, I had to…pretend…to be a local high school student via my Facebook page. I needed to change my age (I chose 17) and my grade (a junior) at a local Cedar Rapids area high school (which I will not name as to protect the privacy of any students). Changing your birthday on Facebook is a hassle, but it can be done. So while After School may not be the easiest app for predators to creep on, it’s still possible.
If you go to the After School website, you’ll be greeted by a collage of normal-looking, happy high schoolers, some with videos sharing why the love the After School app. At a first glance, it’s totally harmless (save the few mentions of the word “anonymous”). There’s no apparent nudity or sexual material. Even the app’s page in the Apple App Store is mostly innocent.
Where’s the harm? Keep reading.
After School’s Purpose (according to their app description)
“Your high school experience will never be the same. After School makes every day a little bit more interesting ;). After School is a private space for you and your school where you can find fun stuff about your friends, embarrassing stories, uplifting notes of encouragement, who is into whom and more! Then take some weight off your mind and post your confessions or hilarious observations either anonymously or with your name — it’s your choice and your network.”
Terms of Service/App Rating: After School is rated 17+ in the app store for:
- Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor
- Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content and Nudity
- Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
- Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes
However, when you go to their TOS page on their website, it says, “Don’t create an account or post any content if you are not over 13 years of age;” and says nothing about needing to be over 17 years old.
Once you’ve downloaded the app and met their burden of proof (verified account via Facebook that you are of high school age and attend a local high school based on your phone’s GPS location), the clear audience is intended for high school students since it asks what grade you’re in (9th-12th).
So, how can kids under 17 download the app? If their parents don’t have restrictions set up on their phones, they can download away, ignoring Apple’s rating and crossing into After School’s ethos:
“It’s okay with us if you’re 13 or older. We won’t tell the app store that there’s a conflict between the age you’re giving us and the age you need to be to download our app.”
After School is like your older friend who buys booze for you when you’re under the age of 21.
Privacy: After School keeps most personal information for an undisclosed amount of time, including location, cookies and pixels on both a user’s mobile device and computer. They make it tough for law enforcement, parents and educators to work with them should an issue arise. From their site (emphasis mine):
“While we make it difficult to do so, it is still technically possible for us to connect your Posts with your email address, phone number, or other personal data you have provided to us. This means that if a court asks us to disclose your identity, we may be compelled to do so…You may be able to fight the subpoena on the basis that it violates your First Amendment right to speak anonymously.*“
*My Note: For what it’s worth, in the US, students in public schools are not protected by the First Amendment if their actions disrupt or cause harm to the student body.
The Good: After School does provide a place to report inappropriate content, users, and has both contact info for teens who may self-harm and a generic parents’ guide on their website about social media (which isn’t that helpful).
The Bad: Everything else.
What you need to know:
After browsing what most parents would look at (the website, the app store), it appears that After School is not a big threat. You download the app and instantly the demeanor changes from innocent to sexy and private.
Here are some screen grabs from the couple of days I was in the app. I’ve censored them to take them from an R or hard PG13 rating to a soft PG13 rating. I think you’ll be able to get the gist and I’ll let the pics speak for themselves. (Remember, in order to get this far, I had to pretend to be a verified high school student at a local school, otherwise, I wouldn’t have even gotten past the first “bouncer.” (There’s another bouncer later on in the app I was unable to pass by for more explicit material. More on that in a moment.)
“But my kid would NEVER use this.”
Look at the third picture there. It shows how many students are using the app and are online at the time I took the screenshot which was 10:17 AM on Monday, April 18 – a school day) at various high schools near me in Cedar Rapids.
- 931/2025 at Linn-Mar – 46% of the students
- 46/250 at Cedar Valley Christian School (the 250 students is an estimate of ALL students K-12, not only high school. If each grade has 21 students, that would be 84 students in high school) – 54% of HS students
- 463/1378 at George Washington High – 34% of HS students
- 697/1730 at JFK High – 40% of HS students
- 397/705 at Xavier High – 56% of HS students
- 589/1495 at Thomas Jefferson – 39% of HS students
My math? 44% of students of the six closest Cedar Rapids high schools to my location are using After School.
There is a filter in the app which “protects” younger students from more explicit material. It’s automatically set until you can prove with a State Issued ID or Drivers License that you are who you are, and that you’re over the age of 17. The name and age on the ID must match the name and age on your account. Since I am not really a 17 year old junior, when I tried verifying it using my Drivers License, it rejected me (even though I am 19 years older than their required age).
I kept trying, contacting the support at the app, asking if my “mom” could give me permission (AKA-just me, real me) using her ID and I got so far as my “real” self was vouching for my “17-year old daughter” and I still could NOT get into this part of the app.
Filters on After School
I Couldn’t Get a Fake ID
So that’s where my investigation ends. I’m totally stumped, and I wasn’t about to ask an actual teen to subject their phone or eyes to what lies beyond in the explicit section of After School.
I’ve said before that the basic premise of all these posts is to not write off every app or social media as inherently evil or terrible or useless. BUT IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD FOR ME TO FIND ANY REDEMPTIVE VALUE WITH THIS APP.
Still, use this opportunity to talk to your kids about tough apps like After School. Ask some questions.
- Have you heard about After School? Have you ever used it? If you have, what have you seen?
- Do you know anyone who uses After School?
- What are the benefits of using After School?
- What are the risks?
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But it’s not just about apps!
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Nervous about talking to your kids about sex? Anxiety over having “the talk” often means we avoid it as long as we can. While we’re waiting, our kids are getting their questions answered and their perceptions of sex and sexuality formed elsewhere–through online searches and a daily diet of mainstream and social media that may shock you. In this immensely practical and well-researched book, Anne Marie Miller
- Equips parents to take control of the narrative their children are receiving about sex.
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