Wizz and HiPal Walkie Talkie: The Safeguarding Risks of Social Networking Apps

wizz_and_hipal_thumbnails

Type of Resource

Guidance

Publication Date

December 18, 2023

Topic/s

Digital Wellbeing / Social Media and Apps 
Recently, friend-finding and social networking apps Wizz and HiPal Walkie Talkie have been topping the charts in their app store categories. Due to their appeal to young people, our experts investigated the apps for potential safeguarding risks, and compiled advice and tips on how to keep the children and young people in your care safer on friend-finding apps.

What is the Wizz App?

Wizz is a free social networking app that enables users to chat live online with strangers from around the world. It features a swiping system in users can browse through profiles to choose someone to chat with, similar to popular dating apps for adults, such as Tinder.

Although the app is free, there are paid subscriptions available.

  • Users are grouped by age category.
  • In order to reply to messages, users must accept message requests.
  • Wizz contains multiple chat options, including a group chat function for friends and voice chat.
  • Friends can be selected based on their location, age, gender, and interests (e.g. sports or gaming).

What is HiPal Walkie Talkie?

HiPal Walkie Talkie is a free online social networking app that allows users to talk to others using their phone as a ‘walkie talkie’ style device. It works even when a user’s phone is locked and not in use.

Upon sign-up, users indicate whether they are either 12 and over, or under 12-years-old. The features do change slightly depending on which of these age categories a user falls into.

  • Users must be friends on the app to use the walkie talkie function with each other.
  • There is no limit on distance when using the walkie talkie feature.
  • The group chat function is for friends only.
  • The ‘BOOM’ feature notifies users of messages or walkie talkie messages when they aren’t using the app.
  • Users can post images and videos and receive likes, comments, and messages from strangers worldwide.
  • Posts can be shared on other platforms, such as Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp via copying their direct link.
  • Users have a profile with a unique username, bio, and profile picture and how many likes their posts have accumulated.
  • Users under 12 can use the walkie talkie function to talk to others they have friended.
  • The ‘Explore’ tab is limited to friends and family if they have been added by a user with their specific a code. The code is valid for 24 hours.
  • Some sections act as a social media platform for under 12s, where children can post photos, receive likes, comments, and messages from friends.
  • In theory, there should be no stranger interaction on this version of the app.

What Are Social Networking and Friend-Finding Apps?

In today’s hybrid online-offline world, it seems we are more digitally connected than ever. However, many people still feel a greater sense of isolation in the offline world.
One study found that a staggering 95% of young people feel lonely, with just over one in 10 describing themselves as chronically lonely.

It’s no wonder then that many are turning to an easily accessible option to try and connect with others.

Filling the gap present in popular social media platforms, friend-finding and social apps focus more heavily on one-on-one connection and direct conversations.

Although Wizz and HiPal Walkie Talkie work in slightly different ways, both raise safeguarding concerns over interactivity with strangers, exposure to inappropriate content, poor age verification systems, and more.

What Are the Risks of Wizz and HiPal?

Wizz

For age verification, Wizz uses Yoti’s facial scan verification process. By using a device’s camera, Yoti scans for particular features that indicate a user’s age. You can learn more about Yoti and age verification in our recent article. Although using Yoti is generally considered to be more effective, it is not 100% foolproof.
On Wizz, frequent in-app prompts encourage users to add more content (e.g. share more photos). This could make a young person feel pressured and result in them sharing more photos and information than they ordinarily would have.
There have been reports that users on Wizz have received messages from users they have previously blocked. This raises concerns over how trustworthy their blocking system is.
The platform describe themselves as the ‘data controller’ of the personal information users share with them. While they claim they do not use any of a user’s sensitive personal data, they also state that they ‘may link or combine’ that information with a user’s in-app experience to make it a more ‘personalised and safe’ experience. They also state that they do not transfer data to third-party vendors, but have outlined in their Privacy Policy that third-parties do actually receive personal information through ‘technology integrated with the Wizz Service’.
As users can choose ‘friends’ based on age, gender, location, and more, it creates a profile of information and opportunity that strangers may use if they are searching for a specific ‘type’ of person to target. This is heightened if an adult looking to groom a child or young person is able to bypass the age verification measures.
Wizz features an app shop from which purchases can made with in-app currency called ‘coins’. Coin allowances range from £0.89-£44.99. ‘Free gifts’ are linked via the Wizz Shop through messages from the ‘Wizz Team’. Children and young people may be tempted to make purchases, believing it could enhance their experience. Wizz also to use third-party advertising (even though they claim not to) and it could lead young people to a ‘pay to play’ type app.

HiPal

Although HiPal’s privacy policy states that the app is ‘not directed to children under the age of 13’, there is evidence that it is being used by younger children. Our experts found the age verification systems on HiPal could be easily bypassed. Users can also potentially set their age to appear older or younger, meaning adults can pose as children, and children and young people can pretend to be older. This leaves children and young people vulnerable to grooming tactics and inappropriate/ harmful content.
HiPal continues to work even when a person is not directly using it. So even if a user isn’t actively using the app or their phone, they will still hear if someone is talking to them via the app. This could result in a sense of anxiety and obligation. It also opens up the possibility of misuse that might cause embarrassment, fear, and upset by broadcasting inappropriate messages.
When reporting users and content on HiPal, the app asks for evidence (e.g. a screenshot to support the claim). Not only could this deepen the trauma for users if they need to view the harmful content again, but if it includes indecent imagery, it could mean the person reporting is breaking the law by making and having a copy of that image. The necessity of having a screenshot could also mean the young person chooses not to report the incident.
Our experts found that if a user does sign up to an under 12 account with Hi Pal, they will be asked for an email address to register. This is a direct contradiction to HiPal’s privacy policy, which states that they do not ‘intentionally collect any information from children under the age of 13’. There are also conflicting reports concerning the data that is collected by HiPal, with their privacy policy claiming they do collect personal information such as your name, email address, and phone number. However, both the Apple iOS Store and Google Play Store seem to have other ideas about what HiPal does with your information.
Users of HiPal are at heightened risk of harassment as it encourages engagement with multiple users, increasing the chances of interaction with others who have poor intentions. The under 12s section might also create an environment for cyberbullying.
While HiPal prides themselves at being a free app with little to no in-app purchasing capabilities, there is always the chance that new features could be released for purchase in the future, especially if the app grows in popularity. There is also a heavy amount of third-party advertising, which could point children and young people to other ‘pay to play’ apps.

What are the risks of Friend-Finding Apps?

By sharing personal information, whether that be their hobbies, feelings, and struggles or even information about where they go to school or live, young people can leave themselves open to someone abusing this knowledge. It can be used to manipulate, blackmail, and/or stalk them. It can also create a power imbalance, allowing the abuser to dominate the relationship and extrapolate further information or self-generated child sexual abuse materials.
 
Know what to do if a child or young person loses control of self-generated sexual images
Moderation on these apps is not fool proof. This means users could be exposed to inappropriate and harmful content. Although the apps may remove content once it is reported, there could be lasting effects if a child or young person has already viewed it.
Our researchers found no controls in place for either app to safeguard against a user suggesting continuing the conversation on a different platform. This leaves a child or young person at risk of moving to another app or site that has call and/or video chat options, or end-to-end encryption, escalating the potential for victimisation.

Top Tips

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