Seventeen magazine recently asked me if the BeReal app is safe for teens. Here’s their article about that, which is great but of course lots got left on the cutting floor. Here’s my full take:
The way this Paris-based app is designed, it’s actually safer than a lot of other apps because it’s made for sharing just among friends. Accounts are private by default. People have to ask permission to friend you (and vice versa). So it’s as safe as a person’s social circle is. It’s just important not to allow in people you don’t know – or to block someone who’s being toxic.
Teens don’t typically welcome strangers, creepy types or potential harm into their intimate social circles. And their friends are a built-in safety factor because friends usually have each other’s backs – for the most part, right?
A good default
It’s probably good for parents to know that users can choose to make a post public by posting to the app’s Discovery page, then anybody can see it. But they have to choose to be public each time and, again, no one can really interact with them without their permission.
The app is also reasonably safe in a mental health sort of way. [It can be helpful to remember that research tells us that the youth most vulnerable online are those most vulnerable in offline life too, and you’re likely the best judge of your child’s vulnerability level offline, and therefore online.]
The mental health part
BeReal is social media lite – literally. It’s as much a game as a social app. It asks for little. The user only shares a photo once a day at a random time (with a notification from the app). They can choose what photo they want to share, of what’s in front and behind them and their phone, within a two-minute time frame – or they can choose not to share.
But being real and sharing spontaneously what’s going on in that moment of their life is the whole point. None of this trying-to-look-perfect or look-like-you-have-a-perfect-life stuff; it’s not the point. Less social comparison, less performance fatigue, more fun. Maybe with a little shared boredom sprinkled in, since young people tell me they are rarely doing something very interesting when they get the notification to post.
Of course, as with all social media, BeReal’s safety level depends on the people using it and how they use it. Wherever social is, anti-social can happen. If someone decides to take a photo that’s somehow mean to someone, that can border on harassment or cyberbullying, but people can immediately block people being anti-social, and that kind of behavior kind of defeats the whole purpose of the app. But users can always report abusive behavior and people in the app.
Social media performance fatigue
In its review of BeReal, Wired reported that the app “represents the latest iteration in the cycle of social media sites that spring from the push-and-pull tension of authenticity and performance,” so Seventeen asked me if I think it helps users to be more authentic.
I truly doubt it. I told them that most people, including (maybe especially) teens, don’t need an app to help them be authentic. In a lot of ways, BeReal is a response. A lot of people are tired of performing a perfect life, personality or look in social media and, at its best, BeReal tends to be a solution – a tool – for that. Or a game for playing with the opposite of that.
If anything, it’s their friends and peers on the app, not the app itself, who help a teen figure out how they want to be in social situations, I told Seventeen. The app just provides the space and a few tools for that.
When people ask me about privacy in social media, I suggest that we drill down on the concept of “privacy controls.” There’s the privacy users can control and the privacy we can’t control in apps and websites.
BeReal is pretty unusual among social apps in that, as I mentioned above, posting is private by default. Which is good – users are automatically only sharing photos with the people they allow into their sharing group on the app.
And there are ways users can have a certain level of privacy. If they decide they don’t like an image they’ve shared, they can delete it, though the app only allows them to delete one image a day – though, if they want to remove more, they can email contact[at]bere.al.
If they don’t want to share their location, they can choose not to when they get ready to post. And this is good: If they do choose to share their exact location, they can only do so privately. If they share their post publicly, the app gives a more general location for where they posted.
Of course kids need to know never to share personal information publicly. Teens with a good head on their shoulders (i.e., the vast majority), quite likely have known this for a long time. If helpful, you can talk with them about considering what’s in the frame of any image they post, front and back. For example, if they’re at your front door, they might want to make sure your address isn’t in the frame. If their laptop screen is on camera, they’ll want to be sure it’s ok for people to see what’s on the screen. If none of the above makes any sense, just ask your kid to explain. They’ll do a much better job!
The 2nd kind of privacy
Wired thinks BeReal is a flash in the pan. I have a feeling they’re right, but we’ll see – better to ask our kids about that.
- On “performance fatigue”: This app’s takeoff reminds me a lot of Snapchat’s about a decade ago (see this post in 2013). The latter’s popularity was a lot about kids getting very tired of always being on their game, always having to have their best foot forward in social media. See also this post on “self-presentation fatigue” and the anonymity trend in 2014.
- Helpful research: “Authentic self-expression on social media is associated with greater subjective well-being” in Nature, 2020 and “Influence of False Self-Presentation on Mental Health and Deleting Behavior on Instagram: The Mediating Role of Perceived Popularity” in Frontiers in Psychology, 2021
- Seventeen’s piece on BeReal
- Wired on the app in August
- The New Yorker on BeReal last May (which links to lots of other coverage, so apologies that I’m so late in getting this posted!)
- The app’s history and links to other coverage – maybe more than you’d ever want to know – can be found in Wikipedia, of course.