Most parents know their kids are taking risks with social media, from the damage they can do to their careers, to bullying and even being vulnerable to predators. It's that last risk that has social media experts concerned about one widely popular app, because of who is using it.
The app is called Musical.ly. On the surface, it is harmless and fun. Kids lip syncing videos they can share with friends. Popular among a wide range of ages, it is a huge draw among young girls.
Internet crime investigators have been called in on cases where young “musers” as they are called, have been contacted by predators. In one case a man messaged an 8-year-old girl “you got me feeling naughty” after watching her Musical.ly videos.
Another man, pretending to be Justin Bieber, sent “Hey cutie! Can you take a pic of U with no clothes on?”
Some 40 million “musers” compete for followers every month. WKYC intern Mariel Zambelli took us through the app, showing us videos from Northeast Ohio musers. We were struck by how many young girls posted videos and the way in which they danced and sang.
Then it got worse.
Zambelli showed us how easy it was to find out personal information about these young users. Easy for us and no doubt easy for predators to track down too.
“I found this one girl. I was able to find her age, the dance studio she was dancing at, what high school she’s in, what sport she plays,” Zambelli explained.
We reached out to “Mary” for our story, and she originally agreed to talk with us. But we also sought permission from “Mary’s” mom, who turned down our request.
It was clear, “Mary” had no problem talking to strangers through the app. “It was a little shocking because I don’t even have a profile picture on my Musical.ly. If she’s a young girl, she doesn’t really know who I am,” said 21-year-old Zambelli.
We reached out to Carl Sullivan, with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (I.C.A.C.) Task Force. “I know what you are doing. I know what you are posting. Your parents might not, so I am here to help you,” said Sullivan as he explained how he tries to educate kids and parents.
Sullivan says kids are lulled into a false sense of security, thinking they are safe in their own homes, when in fact predators know how and where to find them. “They’re going to show you a picture of some kid who looks like Justin Bieber, but in fact, it is a 45-year-old man who knows your geolocation,” Sullivan cautioned.
We talked with mom, Susie Hozjan whose 11-year-old-daughter Grace is a fan of Musical.ly. But mom has tight restrictions. “Not that I don’t trust her. I just check and make sure that there is nothing on there that shouldn’t be. Or somebody trying to contact her that I don’t know who it is,” Hozjan said.
Grace isn’t allowed to make her own videos. But she can watch her friends’ Musical.ly videos. Hozjan said it was another social media mom who pointed about some of the potential perils with Musical.ly.
“It was just the way the girl was dancing and you know, moving her mouth,” Hozjan said of the video that her friend pointed out. “And she was just a little kid, but the little girl didn’t even realize what she was doing,” Hozjan added.
We reached out to the people behind Musical.ly who say users can enable privacy settings which let them limit who sees their videos.
Released in 2015, the app comes with a 12+ rating. There are some parental controls. Similar to Instagram, users can set their profile to “private” in settings, which allows them to approve those people allowed to see their Musical.ly videos. The three settings circled in red should be toggled on. There is also a block list and “musers” can report inappropriate profiles to Musical.ly.
Like other social media, in which users upload their own content, pornography is hard to filter.
Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children has excellent resources and tips for parents. You can find that information here.