Is the Saturn App Safe Since the Security Update? We Posed as a Student to Unmask the Dangers
Imagine infiltrating a school's digital ecosystem incognito, accessing the personal information of hundreds of minors – a scenario that recently unfolded, revealing privacy vulnerabilities in the Saturn Time Together (Saturn) app. A recent viral post detailed one father’s experience exploring Saturn, a popular app among students, thrusting security concerns into the spotlight and prompting Saturn to enhance the app’s verification process.
Are the recent verification changes enough to keep users safe? We asked our content editor, who is a mom to school-age kids, to check it out and peel back the layers of Saturn, navigating its features and risks. In the sections below she tells you everything you need to know based on her firsthand experience with the app post security updates.
What is Saturn Time Together?
Saturn describes itself as “a social utility tool that gives kids control over their schedules, activities, and connections.” It prompts users to connect their profile to other social media platforms including Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and Venmo. Currently, it is only available on iOS, but with a whopping 87% of teens reporting that they have iPhones, a large percentage of students can utilize this app.
Understanding Saturn’s features
Saturn offers a range of features designed to enhance school schedule management and communication among students. They include:
- Schedule and task management: Users share their schedules (including teacher information) allowing them to keep tabs on friends and classmates.
- Digital Compass: The "now" feature provides real-time updates on where users need to be, including a countdown timer that indicates remaining class minutes. It essentially acts as a digital compass, guiding students through their day.
- Bulletin: The “bulletin” feature facilitates school-wide announcements, promoting community engagement. This is where a user can find announcements about after-school clubs, sporting events, and more.
- Social Media Integration: The “people” feature connects students within the same school, revealing their schedules. Here, students can direct message each other or add each other as friends and have a group chat. It is essentially social media integration that enables students to connect and communicate.
My time on the app led to several discoveries. First of all, Saturn showcased schools from across the country. I quickly found the local school where my teens attend and could see that over 400 students there use the app.
I easily joined–without being verified–using a fictitious name, birthdate, and graduation year. The new verification step takes place later. This means that anyone can get access to your kids’ schedules on Saturn.
I constructed a counterfeit schedule using a drop-down box with suggested classes. Clicking on a specific class, which the app calls “sections,” unveiled the names and profile pictures of fellow Saturn users within that class, along with the teacher’s name. There were about 6-8 students per class whom I could see. Here is a screenshot of what was visible to me, even before being verified.
I could scroll through every class in the drop-down menu, hundreds of them, and see glimpses of students and teachers. I selected six classes to join, and voila! I was a 14-year-old freshman. However, a key detail remained – since I was not verified I was walled off from seeing or connecting with any other students at this point, including the ones the app had previously shown. This blockade is the security update that Saturn implemented, but it didn’t hinder my initial access to the profiles of various students while shaping my schedule.
Verification: Navigating security measures and loopholes
Following widespread privacy concerns, Saturn implemented a verification process on 8/13/2023, requiring users to verify their accounts with school-issued email addresses before connecting with fellow students. This step improves security but does not eliminate all potential risks.
The verification process was simple using an email address containing the school domain. Because this is where my kids go to school, I was easily able to use my child’s email to be verified. Saturn did not send a verification email; it simply granted access based on the familiar domain used by other students.
As I dug around the FAQs, this is because many school domains prevent incoming emails from external sources, so legitimate students would be unable to have their accounts verified with an inbound email.
Once verified, I had access to the 400+ kids for that school under my fake name and schedule. I quickly found a few of my kids’ friends and their schedules, could see who their Saturn friends were, and could begin chatting with them in a group or via DM.
Privacy and security concerns
While Saturn offers utility and social connection, it also poses significant privacy risks, especially considering its broad user base. Saturn markets itself for high school students, yet its age minimum of 13 years old encompasses middle school students. My peek into the app revealed a K-4 primary school with 44 users.
This raises significant concerns regarding privacy and safety. Any parent, relative, friend, or even school staff can exploit their access to student email credentials to infiltrate the app. Many schools issue email addresses to students as young as kindergarten, making young children vulnerable to predatory adults (or older kids!) right within their own school community.
There may also be illegitimate users who joined before Saturn cracked down on verification, which could include former students who still have email credentials, or the worst case scenario – predators.
Other significant concerns
Aside from the potential for predatory behavior, there are important concerns to be aware of, even for the most legitimate users. Here are several that I identified:
- Classroom Distractions and Learning Environments: Saturn introduces a challenging impact on classroom environments. The prevalence of smartphones already poses distractions in classrooms, and the app's features, including chat and real-time updates, may exacerbate the issue.
- The paradox of social engagement: One of the app's noteworthy features is its chat function, allowing students to communicate with friends, classes, and groups. While this can foster connectivity, it also raises concerns about mental health, particularly the fear of missing out (FOMO). Users may experience negative emotions if excluded from chat groups or if they see friends sharing information about activities they were not invited to. Negative mental health outcomes relating to social media usage are well documented.
- Diminished real-life interactions: The chat feature threatens to detach students from real-life interactions, diverting them to digital conversations at the cost of in-person connections. This is not unique to Saturn, but this irony contrasts with Saturn’s mission to bring students together.
- Cyberbullying: Because a student can use any name on the app, they could impersonate another student at the school and make counterfeit posts. The door is also wide open for many other types of cyberbullying.
- Sexting: Any app with a DM function provides a portal for sexting and possible sextortion.
- Stalking: Saturn’s openness reveals students' schedules, making it easy to stalk both virtually and in person.
- Broad user base: Some schools have a broad range of grades which can put very young students in contact with much older ones (think K-12 schools). While Saturn requires users to be 13, any user can enter a false birthdate, and this happens regularly with underage users of social media.
- Domain vulnerability: Shared email domains within districts enable cross-school interaction allowing anyone within the district to join another district school’s Saturn page. High schoolers could join an elementary school page, and vice versa.
- Lack of self-reliance: Over-reliance on digital tools can hinder skills and contribute to excessive screen time, potentially affecting overall mental well-being. While many of the features of Saturn may be helpful, such as task management, do students really need an ongoing countdown of when each class ends and where to go next? Self-reliance is a vital skill. For those who need a little more help with this type of executive function, other apps exist which do not carry the social media and privacy concerns.
- Teacher privacy: Saturn states that they do not share teachers’ personal information. However, students do. It was very easy to see what teacher taught which class, where, and when. Teachers have no control over their information being shared.
3 Safety tips for responsible app usage
For parents considering the Saturn app, here are a few tips:
- Privacy protections: Configure privacy settings so that your child’s schedule remains confidential. Note that while schedules may be concealed, a user’s name remains visible and can still receive “friend requests,” which once accepted, the user’s schedule will be visible to that friend.
- Educational conversations: Instill the importance of guarding personal information within your child, nurturing a sense of responsible digital citizenship.
- Ongoing monitoring: Check your child’s phone regularly for new apps and engage them in discussions about their digital activity. For younger children, consider restricting access to the app entirely.
Due to the concerns ranging from privacy issues to digital distraction, we don’t recommend this app for younger children and encourage parents of older teens to review privacy settings and understand the risks. Several alternatives exist that provide scheduling assistance that do not have the same digital pitfalls.
When considering any new app for your child, thorough research is key. Employing digital defense skills that promote self-discipline, foster safe online habits, and cultivate good digital citizenship remains crucial. Our Brain Defense curriculum, a renowned digital safety training resource, equips children with these essential skills.
Brain Defense: Digital Safety Curriculum - Family Edition
"Parents are desperate for concepts and language like this to help their children. They would benefit so much from this program - and I think it would spur much needed conversations between parents and children.” --Jenet Erikson, parent