Imagine one of those cliché American teenage movies. You know the one where the teen’s parents go out of town and he decided to throw a party in their absence? He invites a few close friends and those friends invite their friends. What started as a small get together ends up a huge party. The teen who lives in the house doesn’t know half of the people who pitch up. And his parents don’t even know the party is happening…
Well the Houseparty app is kind of like a digital version of that scenario. Launched in 2016 the app has been on a slow decline over the past few years, but has been completely resurrected by the Covid 19 lockdown. It is popular with young adults who use it to hang out and have drinks, but the majority of users as teens and tweens who log on multiple times a day, connecting with friends and friends-of-friends.
How does it work?
Houseparty is a video-focused social media app. It simulates an actual house party in that users can invite friends into the “house” to be part of the “party”. The house has rooms and each room can host a conversation of eight people. In its default mode, anyone can be invited into the “room” by someone who is already there. Those is the room can chat via video or text. They can also play games like Pictionary or General Knowledge.
Users are notified when their friends are in the house and also who has entered the room they are in. You also have the option of locking the room you are in so that someone has to “wave” to you or ask to come in.
What’s the appeal?
As you can imagine, tweens and teens love Houseparty. There is so much to appeal to them, especially in this time of social isolation. Kids this age need their friends, and virtual hangouts are the next best thing to being together in person.
Teens also like the idea of getting to make new friends without that awkward face-to-face introduction. Friends can pass time playing games or just chatting.
What can go wrong?
While on the whole this is a fun way to connect with friends and family, there are potential challenges, especially for younger users.
- Belonging to a group and gaining peer approval are massively important to tweens and teens. On Houseparty there is the potential to feel left out when your friends are having a conversation in a locked room without you. Intentional excluding and bullying are easy and can have a big impact on the emotional well-being and mental health of our children. Anxiety and paranoia can result if an adolescent is aware of an existing group formed by their peers that they are not included in.
- Because friends can invite friends, your child can end up hanging out with kids they (and you) don’t know.
- Houseparty is a live video app, which means interaction happens in the moment and there is the possibility of being exposed to inappropriate content by other people in the room. This can include bad language, behavior, links and texts.
- Some kids have been reported to use it as a way of texting friends without parents monitoring what they say. Parents often check Whatsapp and texts, but not Houseparty. Hiding content and conversations from parents is easy to do and gossiping about peers can become significant.
- Tweens are an incredibly impulsive bunch. Because of where they are in terms of brain development they often act on their emotions and do things without thinking it through. So interacting on a live video app where they want to fit in and may do things they may later regret leaves a lot of room for trouble.
- There are no parental controls on this app. Participants can take screenshots of conversations which can be shared and circulated, often causing emotional harm.
What can you do?
So with all this to worry about, what can parents do to minimize the risks and help create a positive experience for tweens and teens?
- Remember this app has a minimum age of 12. Common Sense media recommends it be used for ages 14 and up. That being said, if your younger children are using this app it is important that you, as a parent are VERY involved. For children under 12 I would suggest allowing your children to use the app only in your presence and in a very controlled environment.
- With older teens, give them more freedom and responsibility to manage their interactions without your involvement. But make sure they know you are there to help and advise.
- Understand the app. Houseparty’s web page has extensive information about how the app works and security that can help parents navigate ways to protect their children’s privacy and personal information. For example, there are instructions on how to turn off location.
- Download the app yourself, understand how it works and become friends with your child on the app. This way you will be notified when they are “in the house” and can also pop in from time to time, seeing who your child in hanging out with.
- Strongly advise your child not to hang out with people they don’t know. Stick to close friends.
- Encourage your child to LOCK the room they are hanging out with their friends in, thus ensuring nobody barges in uninvited.
- Talk to your child about the app and coach them in its use, including appropriate etiquette and what to do if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Make sure your children know they can come to you with any problems they may have and keep the communication channels open.
- Keep helping your child develop their EQ (Emotional Quotient) and LQ (Love Quotient) so that they are kind in their interactions and secure in their identity.
To use or not to use
In short, Houseparty allows users to interact on a fun, live platform. You can video chat, text, and play games with groups of up to eight. It is aimed at tweens and teens but due to lockdown is used extensively by friends and family of all ages.
The downside is lack of parental controls, potential emotional harm to those who are excluded or bullied on the app, and the obvious dangers that come from using a live streaming service. However, if you stay involved and attentive, checking in regularly and keeping communication open, it can be a fun way for older kids to stay connected to their peer groups.