Mobile devices and live-stream apps give teens the means to broadcast themselves 24/7. They can also watch friends—or complete strangers—go about their day-to-day lives. Take a look at the new normal from both sides of the lens.
Think back for a moment to that memorable day when you let go of your child’s bike—and for the very first time, instead of face-planting, she stayed upright and wobbled away under her own power. She ventured off, out of your control, her personal freedom amplified tenfold. You gave her the power to zoom away, possibly into traffic, and bumped up her risk of getting hurt. The Internet presents a similar conundrum for moms and dads. Although the worldwide network of interlinked computers in many ways makes life easier and more convenient, it also provides a perfect blank canvas for projecting our anxieties. Which brings us to the latest technological miracle that’s tailor-made to plague parental nightmares: so-called live-streaming apps, which allow anyone with access to the Internet via a smartphone or computer to start broadcasting immediately.
It probably sounds unsettling at best—and at worst, scary. However, experience tells us that time tends to make us more comfortable with innovations that initially appear to have terrible implications. For instance, many insisted radio would be the downfall of society when it debuted. It wasn’t. Neither was rock-and-roll music, television or the Internet, with its unmonitored chat rooms and free pornography. Next down the pike came graphically violent high-fidelity video games, which seemed bound to turn our kids into criminals, followed by the fresh horrors of constant oversharing on social networks. Then our children—along with adults—were being turned into zombies by the omnipresence of smartphones. Four years ago, when Snapchat began allowing anyone to send a photo or text that would self-destruct in 10 seconds or less, it was touted as the next potential threat to our collective kids’ moral undoing. And it’s true, children being given the ability to send photos and texts that won’t follow them around for the rest of their lives is a frightening thought. (Though it’s perhaps no worse than the idea that most of their photos will be around forever.) But while there have been upsetting incidents involving Snapchat and teens, given Snapchat’s nearly 100 million daily active users, the apparent incidence of trouble on the service is infinitesimally low. Today it feels more like a self-erasing version of Facebook rather than a cesspool of sexting, with celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest and Meghan Trainor and media outlets from The Washington Post to Good Morning America adopting it to connect with fans.
Which brings us to the most recent addition to Internet mayhem: live-streaming services, such as Meerkat, Periscope, Twitch and YouNow. All of these apps empower anyone with an Internet connection and a computer or smartphone to begin broadcasting to the entire world—instantly and for free. It’s a staggering technological achievement. It’s also a startling amount of freedom and power to give to a kid whose brain has not yet finished building the parts of it that help make good long-term decisions.
Hop on over to Younow.com and you’ll find an easily browsable array of channels of teens broadcasting themselves, typically from their bedrooms. Some of them are singing or chatting. Others are sleeping. A lot are sleeping, actually (more on this in a moment). Meanwhile, newer video-streaming apps Meerkat and Periscope let anyone start sending out video of whatever is happening to them at any given moment.
But before you start grilling your offspring about their YouNow follows or live-streaming proclivities, it’s important to remember that these services and the freedoms they afford are not entirely new, just packaged slightly differently. And that given time, some moral guideposts and perhaps a couple of cautionary tales, children tend to figure these things out in such a way so as not to completely ruin their lives. YouNow was founded in 2011 and spent several years languishing in relative obscurity before enjoying a sudden rise in popularity in mid-2014. The service, which its founder calls “a global platform for self- expression,” now claims 100 million user sessions per month and 150,000 broadcasts per day. It’s also a Peeping Tom’s dream, allowing unfettered access to video streams of thousands of teens alone in their bedrooms.
But the feature that seems to give most people pause is the service’s integration of a gift economy, in which users buy virtual items, then give them to performers as a token of their appreciation. YouNow then shares the lion’s share of the money they make with partner performers based on how much revenue they generate.
And if you think that potential monetary incentive is unsettling, try Sleeping Squad on for size. It’s one of the strangest and most bizarre concepts on the web. Searching for #sleepingsquad on YouNow will result in hordes of cam feeds of teenagers who have intentionally gone to sleep with their camera trained on them. There can be hundreds of these feeds happening each night, their chat rooms filled with people discussing the sleeper, the weather or, really, anything they please.
Two new services offer similar capabilities, but exclusively for cell phone users. They feel more like an outgrowth of Facebook or Twitter. Meerkat launched in February 2015, right before the influential South by Southwest conference, and quickly became the darling of the show. Shortly afterward, Twitter itself announced that it had bought a startup named Periscope (which is somewhat similar to Meerkat) and would be integrating it into its existing messaging platform. Meerkat managed to top 2 million users after its first two months. Periscope’s powerful Twitter platform allowed it to get to a million users in its first 10 days. (For perspective, Facebook currently boasts around 1.4 billion monthly users.) While both services make slick use of technology, there’s no telling what their long-term viability will be. Similar options have been floated before and failed to gain significant traction. Still, they’re worth knowing about, in case either becomes the next big thing for kids.
Although live-streaming apps may seem disconcerting, ultimately the choices they present to today’s children are not so different from those first presented by the free availability of the Internet itself, or the fact that all their friends are reachable via text 24/7. Our kids will have to learn to make good decisions and know what to do if things get weird. And for that, they need you.
Often, what is hysteria-inducing to us is far less confusing to our children, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need guidance. It might be as simple as asking them which services they use, and how they’d handle certain hypothetical yet possible situations if they cropped up—as in, say, someone asks for photos of you, requests your phone number or home or school address, or encourages you to meet up somewhere without an adult present. You might be pleasantly surprised by the safety-savvy answers they offer. (And if not, you know where to focus your attention.)
Today the same web browser that allows your daughter to submit her homework and take tests electronically can be used to broadcast her blissfully sleeping face. The same smartphone your son uses to let you know that he’s running a little bit late can be used to broadcast his private activities to the entire world. These realities aren’t going away. But neither is the connection that you have to your children, and your ability to instill common sense and good decision making in them. At some point you just have to let go of the bike and tolerate the flutter in your stomach as she wobbles off, occasionally running into trees but eventually zooming and swooping about in ways you could hardly have imagined.
Sweet Streams Are Made of These: Four of the most popular self-streaming apps
Meerkat/meerkatapp.co Platform: Android, iOSNumber of Users: 2 million (as of May 2015)Quick Download: Instantly stream video from your phone’s camera to anyone on the Internet. Meerkat does not archive the streams it sends out, meaning they disappear once they are finished. This adds an air of exclusivity for those watching, as well as instilling some FOMO (fear of missing out) whenever you’re not watching Meerkat. Broadcasters can archive their videos for themselves.Notable Performers: Jimmy Fallon, Tony Hawk, Ashton Kutcher, Jared Leto, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Shaquille O’Neal, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Periscope/periscope.tv Platform: Android, iOSNumber of Users: Difficult to say, but it had a million users after 10 days on the app storeQuick Download: Periscope began life as a startup and was quickly snapped up by Twitter, which debuted it in March 2015 (shortly after the launch of Meerkat). Naturally it has deep Twitter integration—a clickable video link appears in your feed when someone you follow is streaming. Periscope streams can be viewed after they end if the broadcaster allows it.Notable Performers: Mario Batali, Ellen DeGeneres, Edward Norton, Aaron Paul, Jamie Oliver, Ryan Seacrest
YouNow/younow.com Platform: Android, iOS, web browserNumber of Users: 100 million user sessions per month and 150,000 broadcasts dailyQuick Download: YouNow is overwhelmingly populated by teens and has a searchable, channel-style lineup. The service sells virtual goods (coins, badges) that users can give to their favorite performers. Partner performers earn money based on how many gifts they receive. Because YouNow works on computers as well as smartphones, some have been known to leave it on all night—hence the bizarre, slightly creepy #sleepingsquad.Notable Performers: Nick Bean, BruhItsZach, Edwin Burgos, Rudan C, Timmy Connors, Matt Hunter, Hailey Knox, Jonah Lesnick, Vanessa and Veronica Merrell, Jared “Flippinginja” Tousley. (You probably have not heard of any of these people because you are not 13.)
Twitch/twitch.tv Platform: Amazon Fire TV, Android, Chromecast, iOS, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360Number of Users: 100 million unique visitors per month, 1.5 million broadcasters, 11 million videos broadcast per monthQuick Download: A spin-off from Justin.tv now owned by Amazon, Twitch revolves around video games. Its primary content consists of so-called Let’s Play videos, where gamers broadcast their gameplay in real time with often amusing dialogue. The site also broadcasts e-sports tournaments.Notable Performers: Gamers CaptainSparklez, LIRIK, MANvsGAME, omgitsfirefoxx, PhantomL0rd, Swiftor, syndicate