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Lip sync app Musical.ly is latest tween craze, but parents nervous

Musical.ly is gaining in popularity with young audiences. The app allows its users to post short music and comedy clips for friends or the general public, and the rewards are virtual affirmation and fan bases that can number in the millions. Musical.ly is gaining in popularity, which has some parents growing weary and concerned.

CHICAGO — A few times a week, Chicago fifth-grader Leila Adnane performs for a worldwide audience, lip-syncing to pop hits while performing intricate choreography in sometimes elaborate makeup.

Her stage is a smartphone app called Musical.ly that has become a sensation among young people, many of whom are still in elementary school. It allows them to post short music and comedy clips for friends or the general public, who reward them with virtual affirmation and fan bases that can number in the millions.

Children like 11-year-old Leila say it's a way to showcase their creativity and bond with friends over a shared passion.

"I like that you can do any music in the world, and that you can (manipulate) it and do different kinds of things," she said. "I think that's really cool."

But some parents have grown wary of the app. They say it encourages an unhealthy obsession with popularity, allows children to engage with objectionable content and puts them at risk of exploitation.

"It turned into this monster," said Chicagoan Kim Weber, who had to have a sit-down with other moms after her 8-year-old daughter and her friends used to app to snipe at each other. "It's supposed to be a fun thing, but just like any other social media, it took a negative turn."

Musical.ly's relationship with young users is problematic in other ways, too. In an appearance at TechCrunch Disrupt London last month, CEO Alex Zhu acknowledged that "a lot of users, especially top users, they're under 13." That's a violation of the app's terms of use, and potentially puts Musical.ly in conflict with federal child privacy law.

But Zhu said that as far as he knows, parents monitor their underage children's activities on the app. He added that the company will delete an account at a parent's request.

"Of course, there will be risk," he said. "The point is not '(We) don't need connectivity; let's kill all the new social media platforms.' The point is we have to manage the risk and solve the problem."

POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

For many users — or "musers," in the app's parlance — Musical.ly is a positive experience. Lockport, Ill., resident Natalie Leone, whose 10-year-old daughter Sicily is a devoted muser, said it reminds her of how she entertained herself when she was a child.

"I remember staring in the mirror and dancing and singing to myself," she said. "I see (Musical.ly) as a handheld mirror."

Alicia Osborne, of Schaumburg, Ill., said the app has given her 9-year-old daughter Eden Kusiak a boost of confidence and a new way to be social with her pals.

"When her girlfriends come over, they'll make Musical.lys," said Osborne. "Then, they'll come out and do a live performance to show us what they're doing. It's active and creative and fun. I really like that about the app."

Schools have picked up on the app, too. Jen Smith, technology coach at South Middle School in Arlington Heights, Ill., assembled a Musical.ly compilation of lip syncing teachers to welcome students when the school year began.

She said the video delighted the kids, particularly when teachers broke into the app's signature hand gestures. Smith said the experience gave the staff a new view into students' virtual lives.

"It just opened up a lot of conversations with teachers about what kids are doing digitally, how they're putting themselves out there and how that changes how they interact with each other," she said.

Kid-centric apps are governed by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. Attorney Mercedes Tunstall, a privacy law expert at the Washington, D.C., office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said the act requires parental permission before a child younger than 13 can post personal data, a way for parents to monitor the account and protection for the confidentiality, security and integrity of a child's information.

Simply writing an under-13 ban into the terms of service "is not good enough, especially if you have knowledge that (underage) children are using it," she said.

Unlike social media platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat, Musical.ly does not ask users their age when they sign up. Would-be lip syncers can create an account with nothing more than an email address or a cellphone number.

A Musical.ly spokesperson said that COPPA does not apply to the app because it is directed at a general audience. Despite Zhu's comments in London, the spokesperson said the company doesn't know how old its users are.

Roy Smith, who runs a service called PrivacyCheq that helps companies meet COPPA regulations, said some apps don't ask about age because they don't want to know; if they can claim they lack "actual knowledge" of underage users, they are technically compliant with the law.

The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general can go after a company for violating the act, but that rarely happens, Smith said. An FTC spokeswoman declined to address whether Musical.ly is in compliance with COPPA and said the agency can't comment on whether it's investigating specific companies.

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