I was recently introduced to Yubo, which is advertised as the “make new friends” app for teenagers, but is often described as “Tinder for teenagers.” The app enables teenagers (or adults pretending to be them) to find others with similar interests and chat through private messaging or via public live streams.
As with any new-to-me app for kids or teens, my first stop was Common Sense Media to get their take. They recommend it not for the app’s required minimum age of 13, but for people age 17 and older:
You can either scroll through the current livestreams or browse individual profiles by swiping Tinder-style—right on profiles you like and left on profiles you don’t. Terms state that users must be over 13, but it’s easy to fudge the date. Upon registration, the app presents users with a teen safety guide; it also sends the information to users via text message and reminds users frequently about posting appropriate content. Still, during the time of review, it was easy to find substance use, profanity, racial slurs, and scantily clad people.
The app, formerly called Yellow, is available on both iOS and Android and may have been one place teenagers flocked when Tinder itself banned users under age 18 several years ago. For its part, Yubo has created the safety guide for teenagers mentioned above, as well as a guide for parents. But the safety of the experience is largely dependent upon users being honest with each other and reporting inappropriate, harmful, or illegal content (or moderators catching it in real time).
But, of course, that won’t always happen. As Zinnia Ramirez writes for Parentology:
Yubo’s community guidelines haven’t impeded adults. Proving this point, Australian journalist Kasey Edwards created a fake profile. “It took me about three minutes to set up a fake—and unverified—profile on Yubo,” Edwards wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. “I was then presented with images of teens who seemed to have interests other than getting to know my wit and charming personality.”
The 40-something Edwards explored further, clicking onto Yubo’s live-stream feature, landing on a seemingly-harmless video of a girl sitting on her bed brushing her hair. A message from another Yubo-user popped up on the screen requesting the girl “show her boobs.” The girl complied.
Now that I was moderately prepared, it was time for me to set up my own account. Here’s what a Yubo spokesperson told me, in an email, about the app’s age verification process:
To ensure age verification, Yubo has an extensive verification process, which includes various information to ensure that only those between the ages of 13-25 are on the app.
Users have to upload a picture of their face to access the application’s features, and algorithms detect users who’ve created multiple accounts using the same device or phone number. Yubo scans Google images, detects fake phone numbers and identifies age discrepancies between the age given at registration, in users profile biography or in the users’ exchanges with others.
Although the verification process sounds extensive, it took me mere minutes to create a fake, unverified account. I used a birthday that put me at age 15 and a selfie profile picture in which my hair mostly covered my 38-year-old face. Within a matter of seconds, the friend requests started rolling in from random users. (Yes, I felt very creepy about all of this, but I needed to test how easy it was to be a faux-teen, and there were basically zero barriers. I never friended, swiped, or chatted with anyone, and I have since deleted my account forever.) The ability to create a fake social media profile is not a problem unique to Yubo, but it’s something users should be aware of.
Now that I was set up, I began bouncing in and out of several live streams. I heard a lot of cursing and general teenage nonsense: guys dancing, girls applying makeup, people fidgeting with hoodies. The thing I most regret was joining a live stream called “Find a man for Madison,” which had about 30 users in it. “If you want Madison, turn your camera on,” one girl said and a few boys turned their cameras on so their own videos popped up on the screen with the apparent goal of winning Madison’s affections. I then watched, in real time, as one boy made fun of another, pushing him nearly to tears.
The boy, who was maybe 14 or 15 years old, responded with, “I know no one wants my ugly face. I’m ugly. I’m so ugly, I want to die.” This kid seemed truly distraught as he continued to berate himself; other users attempted to comfort him, but then a Yubo moderation message popped up saying the title of the live stream was inappropriate and that bullying is not allowed. Users rapidly dropped out of the stream, probably to regroup in another one. Whether someone reported the stream or the moderator happened upon it on their own, I don’t know for sure.
During my time on Yubo, I heard teenagers talk about how inebriated they were—and several others very much appeared to be impaired. I saw teenagers exchange Snapchat and Discord information in front of other viewers so they could more easily chat with their new “friends” on multiple platforms. With the exception of the one moderation, the whole experience felt like a free-for-all happening in real time.
There aren’t really controls for parents to put into place on Yubo—users can hide their location, block other users, and report inappropriate content, but the responsibility for that will fall on the teenager. If you allow them to use the app, you should both review the safety guides and reiterate the importance of not giving out personal information, not being inappropriate in a live stream, and not meeting up with strangers they’ve met through the app.
This article was originally published on Nov. 23, 2020 and was updated on Dec. 1, 2020 to remove inaccurate information about location-sharing and to include information from a Yubo spokesperson about its age verification process.