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).
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.
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. HQ is 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 air times 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 Photomath, Slader, 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.