Experts in digital safety
Marco Polo is one of many communication apps along the lines of Zoom, Houseparty and Snapchat that exploded in popularity during the Covid pandemic. The app’s founders, Michal and Vlada Bortnik, say their app is different in that Marco Polo is “built to be good for you” and to be “safe for families”. To help make your digital parenting decisions easier, and to help you keep your kids safe online, we’ve taken a closer look at those promises and the app in this safety guide to Marco Polo for parents.
Qustodio’s App Safety Guide to Marco Polo
What is the Marco Polo app?
Some people call Marco Polo the “Snapchat for old people” because it is a video based social media app with a 20+ audience which includes celebrities who are also parents like Ice-T. But unlike Snapchat, the videos you record on Marco Polo don’t disappear or self-destruct.
Users record video messages of themselves for a friend or group of friends and upload them for asynchronous viewing – immediately after or at a later date. In other words, the video messages cannot be responded to in real-time (except for a set of simple emojis) like in a FaceTime or Skype call. Marco Polo is much more like the back and forth of talking through a tin can on a string, which is exactly why its makers refer to it as a “video walkie-talkie”.
Why do families love Marco Polo?
- Marco Polo highlights that busy parents really like that they can send messages without the pressure to respond immediately.
- Marco Polo is free to use, though it does offer a paid version with more options as part its efforts to try to find a sustainable business model not based on ads (see next point).
- Marco Polo promises to never show ads, never sell user data for advertising, never uses ‘likes’ or social comparisons, nor manipulate algorithms.
- In terms of bandwidth, Marco Polo is more like text messages. The app eats up less of your data plan than real-time video chat platforms do and makes it less likely you’ll have a choppy connection.
- Marco Polo is not dependent on social media accounts, as long as Grandma and Grandpa have a phone number they can use it.
- And last but not least, Marco Polo has some fun features such as voice-changing, including the irresistible “helium” and “robot” options and the ability to draw and write on videos.
Is Marco Polo safe for kids?
- Marco Polo has no text chat or direct message (DM) option, which cuts off a typical avenue for potential predators to contact their kids.
- The app doesn’t allow you to browse for friends of friends or total strangers. To chat with someone, you must add that person to your contacts.
- Marco Polo itself doesn’t generate any objectionable content, but like any social app, your child’s exposure to risk online depends a lot on who their contacts are. If you know who your child’s contacts are and keep an eye on it, they should be fine. But be aware that app features and filters change. But for now, Marco Polo is safer for kids than apps that have public feeds or that facilitate the ability to connect with strangers.
- What about data? Marco Polo only encrypts data in transit, not end-to-end. So they have access to your videos indefinitely, though you can choose to delete them. Marco Polo also insists no data is monetized or advertised against.
- Children under 13 aren’t permitted to create Marco Polo accounts per the app’s terms and conditions (and per COPPA and GDPR legislation).
How can I make Marco Polo safer for my child or teen?
- To protect your child’s identity, use your own information (name, phone number, and email address) at sign up for any child under 13 you would like to allow to use the Marco Polo app.
- Skip the request to access contacts.
- Ensure you know everyone in your child’s contact list.
- Talk about what kind of messages and how many are appropriate to share. Remind your child that every video (everything) can be screenshot. There are no second chances with live or semi-live conduct. Remember, iOS allows for an easy screencast (video recording of what’s happening on the screen).
- Talk about screen-life balance. Make sure your child knows the advantages of in-person communication and how much harder it can be to interpret emotion, body language and jokes in an online environment.
- Set screen limits on device use no matter what apps your child is using. Parental control tools such as Qustodio make doing so consistent and easy for today’s busy parents.
Qustodio’s final advice on Marco Polo
As long as parent’s know who is on their child’s contact list, Marco Polo is a safe app made by two parents who clearly understand what other parents want in an app. While we have some doubts about the safety of the data storage and about how long they will be able to keep their ad-free promise, we think this is an appropriate app for families. We like the limited scope of the app – nothing is over-the-top, it’s not about likes and showing off to the whole world to see which takes away much of the stress of traditional social media platforms to perform, especially for teens. We also like that it is made and owned by Joya Communications, the Marco Polo parent company, and not a giant tech company – for now.