Parents, consider this your official heads-up on a new-to-the-U.S. app that shows where your kids are and let's them video chat with absolutely anyone, anywhere.
WeChat, a free app from Shenzhen, China, available for the majority of smartphones, has the potential to become a hit in the U.S. because of an unprecedented combination of features, including video, recorded voice and text chats to individuals and groups. (It's already the second-biggest social network in China and boasts 300 million users worldwide.)
The 17+ warning that appears with every download should be taken seriously. WeChat pinpoints users' locations to within yards and shares that information with friends and strangers. In fact, one of the most memorable features of WeChat is its "Shake Shake" — shake your phone, and you'll hear a sound like a pair of maracas. In a second or two, a profile page and chat window appear for a stranger some specified distance from you — as close as several hundred yards.
According to the rating, WeChat earned its age restriction for "frequent/intense sexual content or nudity."
WeChat is not just a conversation app. It combines the social networking features of Facebook Messenger (users in the U.S. must sign up with Facebook), Instagram-like photo streams (complete with filters) and walkie-talkie communications. About the only thing it doesn't offer is SnapChat's self-destructing messages. WeChat stores them for as long as people want.
In addition to "Shake," WeChat offers several other ways to connect with strangers .
"Look Around" shows users who are close to you. You'll see a list of people, an icon for male or female and their distance (in yards or miles) from you. Tap on names to open profile pages that include the last 10 photos posted. To start chatting, tap "Send a greeting."
"Message in a bottle" is a playful feature that allows you to type or record a voice message and then throw it out to the sea of WeChat users to find. A few tries resulted in messages from Hong Kong, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. (No translation is available.)
Like with any social networking app, WeChat's popularity will hinge on how many users jump on board. But with all it offers, WeChat may catch on like wildfire with teens and younger kids in the same way that SnapChat and Vine have.
WeChat offers an amazing collection of features to socialize and share. But the talk-to-stranger aspect of "Shake" and "Look Around," should give parents pause.