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Japan experts warn of location sharing apps' dark side

A woman looks at her smartphone in this unrelated file photo taken in the city of Fukuoka on Oct. 22, 2022. (Mainichi/Jintaro Chikamatsu)

FUKUOKA -- Smartphone apps that allow people to instantly share their location with friends have proven especially popular with young people, but the services also entail many risks, including abuse by bullies and stalkers.

    Apps such as zenly allow users to share location details with other users who they have accepted as "friends." But there have been cases of young users being followed in the real world by strangers they've met online. University of Hyogo associate professor Kazuo Takeuchi researches smartphone issues among children, and says that many people accept friend requests on zenly without hesitation after hitting it off with them on social media over things like common hobbies. There are apparently numerous cases of users becoming stalking victims, among other issues.

    Starting in 2021, Takeuchi, who used to teach middle school, began to receive reports from high school teachers and others of young people on zenly feeling physically threatened. In 2022, more than 10 people said they would take their cases to the police.

    There have also been numerous consultations from teachers and other parties about the zenly app being used for bullying. They said that bullies abused the app's ability to constantly track their classmates' location even when they try to get away.

    A user can temporarily turn off location sharing, even after accepting friend requests. However, the other user will be notified of the setting change, and this can cause tension in the relationship.

    Takeuchi said that there are risks even when using location sharing apps among friends. There have been cases where a user felt left out when they realized that multiple friends were gathered in the same place without them, making them think that they were the only one not invited. The associate professor warned, "No one in my university class didn't know zenly. It's convenient, but I want them to be aware of the major demerits of having your private life being monitored."

    Akiko Takahashi, visiting professor at Seikei University, commented, "Young people who are familiar with social media from a young age have a strong desire to be connected with someone. They post selfies and other photos online daily, and don't hesitate to disclose personal information."

    Takahashi thinks that even though zenly has announced it is terminating its services, similar apps will continue to be popular. She said, "There are extremely great risks of strangers knowing your address and location, but users can't seem to imagine how scary this is. I'd like people to use these apps safely by sharing information with only family and friends they've met, without forgetting that there are people with bad intentions."

    (Japanese original by Akihiko Tsuchida and Hyelim Ha, Kyushu News Department)

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