This app allows teens to compliment each other anonymously. One expert warns it monetizes their anxiety
Teens answer personal polls on Gas, but finding out who voted for you isn't free
An extremely popular app called Gas lets teenagers send each other anonymous compliments — but finding out who sent it can cost up to $8.99 a week.
One tech expert is concerned that this payment model is "preying" on teenage insecurity.
"They've built an app to monetize the social and psychological anxieties of adolescents," said Vancouver-based technology journalist Alexandra Samuel, author of Work Smarter with Social Media.
"It's brilliant because that is like one of the world's guaranteed perpetual energy sources — adolescent anxiety — but boy, it just seems incredibly exploitative," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
Gas is free to download, but offers in-app purchases for a range of subscriptions that unlock extra features. The app's name comes from the slang phrase "gassing your friends up" — the idea of boosting confidence with compliments or encouragement.
We have recreated and amplified the dynamics of the high school cafeteria. And no one is paying a higher price for that than the kids- Alexandra Samuels, technology journalist
Teens who sign up must submit their location and select a local high school. The app then shows a series of questions — for example: who is the best DJ? Who do you secretly admire? Whose smile makes your heart melt?
The user has a list of names to choose from — all other teens from their high school who've signed up to the app — and their choice is notified with a flame emoji.
Users can pay to find out who voted for them, or shield their own name from being shared. They can also get hints by watching ads, or sending referral links to ask friends to sign up.
Quinn Mansworth, a 15-year-old Grade 10 student in Toronto, downloaded the app after it was released in Canada in late November.
"I think the core reason that the high schoolers are using this app is because we just have such a need for validation because of our training with social media," said Mansworth.
"Scrolling and just getting validation — even if it's just so fake and un-genuine — it's just something that is, like, so alluring," he told The Current.
Payment model feels 'ickier' with Gas: Samuel
The app was initially released in certain parts of the U.S. last summer. It topped downloads charts as it became more widely available in the fall, with TechCrunch reporting this week that it had garnered 7.4 million installs and almost $7 million in consumer spending since going online.
Samuel acknowledged that teenagers are not "uniquely vulnerable" to wanting to know what people think of them, or paying for the privilege. She points out that she pays a monthly fee to business-oriented social network LinkedIn to make work connections and see who's looking at her profile.
"I think what makes it feel ickier in the case of Gas is the idea that ... you're preying on the social anxieties of teenagers," she said.
"Frankly, the part of Gas that's most outrageous is that they figured out how much they can charge for it."
The Current reached out to Nikita Bier, one of the developers of Gas, but did not hear back. Last year, he told Bloomberg that he built the app to help teens "raise self-esteem and spread positivity."
In the fall, the app was the subject of a hoax claiming it was being used for human trafficking, something experts say would not be possible given the app's features. On Tuesday, the video game messaging platform Discord announced it was acquiring Gas, but did not disclose specific terms.
Samuel has reported on social media since its beginnings at the turn of the century, when she was optimistic about its potential to be a "great force for human connection and social change and growth."
"Instead, we have recreated and amplified the dynamics of the high school cafeteria. And no one is paying a higher price for that than the kids who are still in high school," she said.
Talk to kids, lead by example
Mansworth said he started using the app to see if anyone would send him compliments, and what those compliments might be. But he deleted the app after he became "paranoid" about what it was telling him.
"I started thinking, 'Are these fake compliments?' If it's 'Best Smile' … I have braces. Is that like a joke?" he said.
"The longer I was on it, the more I just kind of felt, like, suspicious of it and it stressed me out."
Samuel said the likes, hearts and little feedback buttons that come with social media aren't going to help anyone feel secure or form connections.
"When you have people constantly voting on one another, it is the enemy of authenticity, it is the enemy of trust, it is the enemy of connection," she said.
But despite these problems, she doesn't think parents should try to ban their kids from using social media. Nor does she agree with age limits that keep kids offline until they're 13.
"It means that we don't equip our kids to deal with social media until they reach the age when they're least likely to listen to us," she said, adding that those conversations should start at a younger age, around nine or ten.
Instead, parents could try to have open conversations about their own social media use, and how they "grapple with some of its more insidious dynamics," Samuel said.
They can also lead by example, such as setting limits on being online, putting the phone away, and not "airbrushing your life on Instagram."
"The more you can talk to your kid about your own struggles, the more you open the door to them sharing what's difficult for them," she said.
Audio produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Kate Cornick, with assistance from Mitch Cait-Goldenthal
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