On the surface, Gas, a new app catching fire with high schoolers, sounds as much like an educator’s dream come true as any social media platform could be.
Strangers can’t contact kids. Users can only say nice things to each other, by participating in polls with an ostensibly positive spin, instead of writing their own, possibly hurtful messages.
But dig a little deeper and it’s clear that Gas—recently the number one downloaded free social media app in Apple’s app store—has serious flaws, experts said. As with other forms of social media, there’s still potential for hurt feelings and even bullying. What’s more, the app’s business model seems tailor-made to profit off teenage insecurities.
For now, educators aren’t sure what to make of Gas.
“It’s like the lesser of two evils,” compared with other apps popular with teens such as SnapChat, where cyberbullying thrives, said Lydia McNeiley, the college and career coordinator for Indiana’s Hammond school district. “Is it better for [kids] to be online or play on an app where you don’t have to worry about predators, where you don’t have to worry about negative [messages]? Definitely.”
But she doesn’t like what the app’s popularity—it’s been downloaded more than half a million times, according to the Wall Street Journal—seems to say about where students’ self-worth is coming from these days.
“I don’t agree with using an app or a poll or anything like that to make you feel better. But unfortunately, [that is the case] in the world that we live in right now,” she said.
Gas—the name stems from the idea of “gassing” someone up, Gen Z-speak for making people feel good about themselves—has skyrocketed in popularity since its launch in late August. Users select their school and grade from a pre-populated list based on their location to begin building their contacts, according to a review by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that studies youth and technology.
Most social media platforms—Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter—showcase user-generated posts. But on Gas, teens are presented with polls, and asked to choose which of four listed contacts has the best photos, who always passes the vibe check, who is the most empathetic, who is always flirting, or who they’d want to hold hands with during a horror movie.
Some of those superlatives may strike older generations as something dreamed up by John Hughes, the 1980s-era director of teen romance movies such as “Pretty in Pink” and “Sixteen Candles.” That’s by design. Romance is part of the draw of Gas, whose developer is called Find Your Crush.
The popularity contest approach could be very harmful to kids who don’t get feedback
The problem: “If a high school kid never gets any feedback or never gets any votes from the polls, then that silence is telling them something,” said Catharyn Shelton, an assistant professor of educational technology at Northern Arizona University. “It’s telling them nobody likes them, which can be really harmful.”
The supposedly positive polls could also be used to bully, she said. For instance, someone who objectively realizes that they are not the best-looking kid in school could be mockingly selected as “most beautiful.”
Gas tries to control for those issues, said Nikita Bier, one of the app’s founders who was also behind a similar platform called tbh. “We designed Gas so that names are surfaced more in polls if a user has not received compliments recently,” he said in an email. “Over 95 percent of users who add friends receive a compliment within their first day of signing up.”
Though the company “tries to ensure all polls are uplifting and positive,” Gas recognizes that they can be misused, Bier said. But such incidents are “extremely rare,” he added. After sending 1.5 billion polls, Gas received fewer than a dozen complaints about the problem.
Shelton, a former high school Spanish teacher, is also disturbed that a for-profit app can glom onto a public school “as this easy-to-access, pre-made community,” she said. “I’m really grossed out by for-profit platforms that are operating in the education sphere in very manipulative ways like this app is.”
Schools often have lengthy internal debates before they bring in, for instance, a snack machine for students, Shelton said. “But an app like this can get into a high school for free.”
Schools should have the choice to opt out of being included on Gas, Shelton said. “There should be high regulation of any technologies like this that are putting their foot into the space of children’s education in our country,” she added.
Schools’ role on the app is limited, Bier said. “We created school networks on Gas to make it easier to find and add your friends,” he said. “This is the only function that schools serve on Gas.”
‘It feels a little exploitative to me’
There’s a lot to like about Gas, said Spencer Greenhalgh, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s school of information sciences. He especially praised the lack of a messaging feature, which seems like a natural for a social app for kids, but can be easily abused.
“It’s actually kind of refreshing to see that Gas is putting effort into figuring out what could go wrong and they are making specific design decisions to walk kids into something that is going to lean towards positivity and lean towards complementing each other and lean towards safety,” Greenhalgh said.
But Greenhalgh has some serious concerns about the app’s business model, whose revenue seems to come largely from a paid, premium version. Users can pony up $6.99 a week to get extras, including hints about who is voting for them in polls, such as the first letter of a name, according to the Common Sense review.
Essentially, “the way they are making money is by charging some kids access to data that other kids have generated,” Greenhalgh said.
Users can find out for free that, for instance, a sophomore boy voted them as “most likely to make my heart skip a beat.”
“That makes you feel good,” Greenhalgh said. “But at that point, you kind of want to know who it is. Right? It feels a little exploitative to me. … They know teenagers are insecure and they want to know what their friends think about them.”
The price of the premium version is “a lot of money,” particularly for high schoolers. While he typically counsels his college students that paid, private apps are preferable to free platforms that sell user data, Gas “seems to push the boundaries of the assumptions that I make when I give advice like that.”
Most users don’t opt for the premium upgrade, Bier said. “Our goal with Gas was to make users feel comfortable sharing this positive feedback with their friends—so we priced the reveal feature such that most compliments stay anonymous,” he said. “We think this has worked well so far: fewer than 4 percent of our users opt in for the reveal feature. We think this business model is much safer and more privacy-conscious than advertising.”
It’s also easy to game some of the features Gas uses to ensure that those signing on to the app really are students at a particular school, the Common Sense Media review noted.
Though Gas was the top free social media app in Apple’s app store in October, it has slipped to number three, among free lifestyle apps. One possible reason: False internet rumors that Gas was being used for human trafficking. Those became so prevalent that police departments, including the one in Piedmont, Okla., put out warnings about the app.
The fact that those rumors even gained traction “really illustrates in my mind how addicted teens are to crap apps,” Shelton said. Though teens feel compelled to be online, they also know the internet isn’t safe for them, she said. “It’s just this interesting juxtaposition, that a rumor like that could catch on so quickly. Because we know it could be true.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.