Olena Zaskochenko
Are music apps like Smule and Musical.ly safe for kids to use?

I used to record myself singing with a cassette recorder and would play it back over and over, wondering if I sounded enough like Marie Osmond. There’s just something about trying to look and sound like a famous singer that overtakes the lives of preteens.

But these days, tweens wanting to imitate Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes have a much more high-tech way to do it, with karaoke and lip-sync apps.

They are definitely fun. But are they safe for kids to use?

Billboard places Sing! Karaoke by Smule at the top of its list of karaoke apps dominating the iTunes store. This app has been around for five years, allowing users to sing the hits of today, songs from musicals, children’s tunes and even karaoke classics like "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.

It’s recommended for ages 9 and up and will allow you a limited amount of free songs, but anyone who plans to use it regularly will want to buy a subscription ($39.99 yearly or $7.99 monthly). This VIP access gives users every song and zero ads.

Smule has fun special effects to enhance your voice and video filters, too. Singers can record solos or pair up with another user or a celebrity (think Dwayne Johnson singing “You’re Welcome") for a duet or sing in an ensemble with other users.

Here is where we come upon just one piece of this app — and there are many — that could prove dangerous for kids. There is no way to set up a private profile in this app. So if your kid decides to sing with someone else anywhere around the globe, that person could then contact your child.

Last year, Smule allowed direct messaging and group chats through the app. Since there are no real privacy settings to speak of, anyone anywhere could contact your child through messaging. If your child is not following that person, the message will go into their "other" inbox (similar to Instagram). But it’s still there. Anyone can follow your child, and anyone can make positive or negative comments on their songs.

If you allow your child to use this app, make sure to check those comments as well as all direct messages to make sure there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on. Monitoring service Safer Kid recommends no one under 18 should use this app. I think Smule is super fun (my inner Marie Osmond is cheering) but should only be used with very close parental supervision.

The other app getting tons of attention and downloads has the Wall Street Journal saying "Gen Z is obsessed." Musical.ly is a lip-sync app (free — iOS and Android) where more than 100 million users watch, create and share videos. This app has made major stars out of unknowns who express themselves through beauty, art, dancing, singing and even comedy. The app gets creative juices flowing, as users can add filters and perform with friends.

A big part of this app relies on popular music, though, so it’s tough to avoid explicit lyrics. There’s no "clean" version of this app. Stick to songs you know won’t surprise you with a bunch of foul language.

Musical.ly does require users to be at least 13, and I’m thrilled to see an overt link on the website helping parents understand privacy concerns. The app actually asks parents not to allow their children under the age of 13 to use it.

For kids over 13 who sign up, make sure to enable all three privacy options. One is so that "only friends can direct.ly me," referring to direct messaging. No one needs strangers privately contacting their children. Another option hides location information, which should be an obvious choice. The last option allows users to completely set the account to private.

The importance of these settings has come to light this year with a criminal case involving a 39-year-old man posing as a 13-year-old on musical.ly. The Chicago Tribune reported the man would contact underage girls and ask for sexually explicit photos. If they refused, he would reportedly say he knew where they lived and would threaten them. Super scary.

1 comment on this story

My last warning about this app is about the search feature. Similar to problems with Instagram, searching for certain words turns up all sorts of inappropriate content. I would encourage children to ask a parent to do the searching if they’re looking for a certain video.

Parents, these apps are a hoot. I’ve had a lot of fun using them with my kids. Just beware of the hidden dangers and talk with your children about them. And let loose and actually use them with your kids — you just might all have fun together.