When NSW mum Kylie Higgins grabbed her 15-year-old son’s phone and looked at a conversation he’d been having, she couldn’t believe what she saw. Her son was being asked to send graphic dick pics to a stranger.
Higgins is the mother of three boys. Her 15-year-old recently transferred to a co-ed school. There, he was introduced to the app Yellow, which has been described as “Tinder for teens”.
Higgins found out her son was using the app. She talked to him about it, and he showed her a conversation he’d had with someone whose profile he’d seen.
“They were in the private messages,” Higgins tells Mamamia. “Within 20 backwards and forwards… ‘Oh, I like your picture. Oh my God, are they your real abs? Can you show me a picture of your dick? Is it thick? How long is it? Can you get a ruler and show me exactly how long it is? Send me a picture with your dick and your abs in the same picture so I know it’s you.’
“I asked my son, ‘How do you know that that person [in the profile picture] is the person you’re talking to?"
“How do I know that the conversation that I found and discussed with him was not a paedophile? I’ve got no guarantee.”
To prove a point to her son, Higgins jumped on the app herself, after finding a picture online of a 13-year-old girl.
“I actually loaded myself on as a 13-year-old girl called Melissa. I had to laugh because it says, ‘Have you gotten your parents’ approval?’ What 13-year-old is not going to tick it?”
Higgins showed her son the profile of Melissa.
“I said, ‘What do you know about this Melissa?’ He goes, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen that picture.’ I go, ‘No, mate. You know her really well. Mate, that’s me.’”
Higgins thinks parents need to educate each other, so they can protect and educate their teens.
“We need to make sure they know who they’re speaking to and just draw a line and say, ‘Guys, it is not okay for 15-year-olds to be lying on their bed with bloody lingerie on, because they’ve got no idea who’s seeing it!’ These kids are making these choices online that can affect their future.”
Cybersafety expert Jordan Foster of ySafe says there was a “big hype” about Yellow last year, with stories in the media. But while the hype has died down, the popularity of the app has kept growing.
“The number of teenagers using Yellow is increasing, and the number of females using Yellow is increasing too,” she tells Mamamia.
With the app, teenagers choose an age bracket, a location (say, people living within a 25km radius) and then whether they’re interested in males or females. They’re presented with photos of other teens, showing their first name, age and suburb, and then they can swipe left or swipe right, depending on whether they think the person is hot or not.
Foster says what this is doing is bypassing all the conversations people would have had 10 or 20 years ago to work out whether the attraction they felt was mutual.
“You have a platform that insinuates, ‘You’re hot, you think I’m hot, fantastic, we’ve got that, we don’t have to have an awkward conversation around it.’ In a large number of cases, it leads to sexual conversations very, very quickly.”
The fact that 13-year-olds are technically allowed to use this app “normalises” this kind of behaviour, according to Foster. She says that’s frightening.
“It’s so young. They don’t have the social and emotional skills to be able to navigate what the risks are.”
Foster has counselled a lot of teenagers, male and female, who’ve got themselves into trouble through the app. One was a 15-year-old girl with low self-esteem who was flattered when a good-looking boy matched with her. He persuaded her to send him nude photos of herself.
“He ended up sending them to other people within his school,” Foster adds.
There was also a 17-year-old boy who sent nudes to a girl who requested them.
“She ended up trying to blackmail him for money. It was quite devastating.”
Foster believes the app is a “perfect breeding ground” for predators.
“There’s no verification process,” she explains. “It’s just really easy to take someone else’s photo and pretend it’s you. And because it’s location-based, it creates an environment where there’s also a physical risk to that child’s safety.”
On top of that, many teenagers post photos of themselves in their school uniform, to show other teens where they go to school.
“The predators have access to that information too,” Foster adds.
Her advice to parents whose teens are using Yellow? Block it.
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“I think because there are so many risks associated with this app, and so many ways it can go wrong, for anyone under the age of 18, it’s imperative that families block this app. Parents can either do that by using a parental control tool or, if they’ve got an iPhone, by setting up their child’s account with an iTunes account and then restricting what apps they can download.”
She says parents should also talk to their kids about predators and about where sexting images can end up after they’ve been sent.
“Follow-up conversations are just as important,” she adds.
Right now, there are a lot of parents out there like Kylie Higgins, “mortified” to realise what teenagers are getting up to online.
“I just don’t understand where it’s gone from, ‘Will you go out with me?’ to, ‘Can you show me how big and impressive you are?’”
Mamamia reached out to the Yellow app for comment but did not receive any response.
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