As you may have heard, Facebook is testing a new iOS app called Lifestage, which is designed to enable students to create a visual profile of who they are to share with their school network. It’s unique in that it doesn’t give users the option to post privately, and unlike most services, it’s designed from the ground up for students to interact primarily with their fellow students at their school or nearby schools.
Before you go on, it’s important to know that, so far, this is a small test. Students at only a handful of schools have been enabled to set-up Lifestage accounts and, in order for a student to use Lifestage, they have to be at a participating school where 20 or more students are already using the app. The best way to find out if your student’s school has been “unlocked” is to ask your student.
Origins of Lifestage
Lifestage was created by Mike Sayman, a 19-year-old Facebook employee who joined the company right out of high school. Sayman said that his goal was to recreate the spirit of the original Facebook, which started out as a network of students on college (and later high school) campuses. Sayman, who was in second grade when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook from his Harvard dorm room, said in a meeting with ConnectSafely that “If you looked at Facebook in 2004, it was about showing who you were and things about yourself and being able to share that with your school network.” Over time, said Saymen, “we’ve gone to sharing what you’re up to instead of just aspects of who you are.” His goal was to “recreate it with the tools my generation uses. Not a keyboard but a camera.” He added that it’s not about sharing messages and stories but “who you are.”
Only for 13+ high schoolers and only for video
You have to be a high school student and under 22 to use Lifestage and it’s all about video. Students can upload and view brief (10 seconds or less) videos but they can’t enter text or even still images.
You start by downloading Lifestage from the Apple App Store. The app is rated 12+ because of “Infrequent/Mild Cartoon or Fantasy Violence and Frequent/Intense Profanity or Crude Humor.” In other words, even with community standards that do limit what people are allowed to post, social media is a reflection of its users and, like it or not, high school students are capable of profanity or crude humor.
After you install the app, you are required to verify your phone number. A verification code is sent to your phone as a text message, which you’re required to add to the app. This is a protective feature because it ties the user to both the device and the phone number. Unlike many other apps, you can’t simply sign-on with an extra email address that’s easy to come by via any number of web-based email services.
You are also required to enter your age, and you are only allowed to use the app if you are 13 or older. Because the account is tied to your device and your phone number, you can only do this once, so children who are not let in because they are under 13 can’t go back to change their age.
You are then shown a list of high schools in your area and asked to pick the school and confirm that you go to that school. As Lifestage discloses in a bold, red warning, the company can’t confirm that someone who claims to go to a school, actually does go there. Also, Lifestage can’t confirm if a person is telling the truth about their age, so it is possible that someone who is not a student or not under 22 could claim to go to a school. However, because this service is all about posting videos that you take within the app, it would be difficult though not entirely impossible for anyone who doesn’t look like a high school student to get much traction within Lifestage.
Everything is public
Before a student can start using Lifestage, they must review a very prominent full-screen warning that “everything you post in Lifestage is always public and viewable by everyone, inside and outside your school.” This image makes it clear that you can’t limit the audience of your videos and that the app “can’t confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school.”
Safety and reporting features
There are some safety features built into Lifestage.
- You can’t upload video or images from outside the app. Only video taken from within the app on the student’s phone can be posted. This minimizes the chances of impersonating someone or posting inappropriate video captured from other sources. The app only takes video, not still images.
- Students can report abuse. See below for information on how to report abusive videos or any person who you believe is not a student at your school.
- Every account is tied to a device and phone number, which means it’s possible for Facebook staff to hold a user accountable for their actions, and makes it difficult for anyone banned or suspended from the service to establish a new account. While it is easy to establish a new web-email address for accounts verified by email, it’s not so easy to get a new phone number and a new device to foil Lifestage’s authentication system.
- Being public has its safety advantages. Even though posting to the public has its risks, it also has its safety benefits. It’s unlikely that someone would use this app for sexting or any other inappropriate images that could embarrass them with everyone at their school or get them in trouble. Despite being prohibited by the terms of service it is, of course, possible to use the app to bully or harass others, but students know that when they are in public, they can be seen by everyone and that makes them more accountable. And if someone does abuse the app, it will be known by lots of people and, hopefully, be reported so that the abusive content can be removed.
- Adults over 22 are banned from accessing content on the app, including parents and teachers. While it’s possible to lie about your age, it would be immediately obvious if you use the app to take any videos of yourself or your peers and, because you can’t upload videos, it’s difficult (but not impossible) to claim you are someone else.
Reporting abusive content
If any user sees a video that is offensive or abusive and violates Lifestage’s community guidelines (which are similar to Facebook’s), they can simply press down on the video, click Report and fill out a short form, which includes a space to provide as much detail as necessary. Community guidelines cover issues such as direct threats, self-injury, dangerous organizations, bullying and harassment, nudity, sexual violence and exploitation and others. It’s important for parents to review these guidelines with their children.
What users can view
When someone logs into the app they’re shown a list of people/profiles in their school. They can view any of those or keep scrolling to find others in nearby schools.
Parents and teachers are not on the service
Unlike most social media apps, Lifestage is for high school students only. And that means that people who aren’t high school students — including parents and teachers — are not allowed to join. While there is something to be said about adult monitoring and supervision, there is also something positive about spaces reserved just for young people so that they can interact more comfortably among their peers. Of course, it’s not literally about privacy – what students post on Lifestage can be seen by the public, but making this a student-only service does provide kids a sense of community where young people can be young people and not feel judged by adults. Because it is a public space (at least for those on the service) there remains a great deal of protection against egregious posts or dangerous acts. Young people do look after each other and if a student is seen posting something that is inappropriate, mean or indicative that they might harm themselves or others, this will be seen by their peers.
Also, keeping this as a high school student-only service reduces the chances of untrusted adults viewing videos of students or contacting them. It doesn’t eliminate it completely because — as users are warned before they are allowed to post – it is not impossible for someone to be other than who they claim to be, but the nature of this app makes that much more difficult than it is with other apps.
You can delete one of your own videos by pressing on it for a second and then touching the trash can icon.
Closing thoughts: Have a family conversation
Whether your kids are using Lifestage or not (and during this small testing period they probably aren’t) this is a good time to sit down with your teens to talk about how they use social media. Of course, you should ask about Lifestage and talk about the implications of posting in public, but you should also talk with them about all of their connected technology and social media use to review some basic guidelines and appropriate behaviors.
It’s also important to remember that there are thousands of apps that teens use and new ones popping up all the time. What’s most important is to help your kids develop critical thinking skills so that no matter what services they use (online or off), they think about what they’re doing and how they’re treating others, take care to protect their privacy and security and keep an eye out for inappropriate behavior, scams and things that may not be what they seem. Just about everything we use, from kitchen stoves to bicycles to smartphones to social media apps, have some risks and Lifestage is no exception, but risks should and can be managed.
ConnectSafely.org has lots of tips and advice as well as parents’ and educators’ guides on the safe and appropriate use of social media and mobile technology, including how to protect your privacy, deal with mean and cruel behavior of others and practice good “digital citizenship” when it comes to how you treat others.
Disclosure: ConnectSafely is a member of Facebook’s Safety Advisory board and receives financial support from Facebook. ConnectSafely.org is solely responsible for the content of this post.
Revised August 29, 2016