The app Saturn bills itself as a time-management tool, helping high school students in 17,000 schools keep track of their classes, sports practices, and extracurriculars.
But that innocuous-sounding mission hasn’t stopped districts around the country—including school districts in six Florida counties, Louisiana’s West Baton Rouge Schools, and Alabama’s Mobile County schools—from warning parents and caregivers about the platform.
The app—which has been growing in popularity, experts say—sparked a spate of news stories about its security flaws in August, after a father’s viral Facebook post described how easy it was to get into the app and access significant information about his child’s classmates.
But experts say flaws in the app’s verification process still make it too easy for people—potentially including predators—to pretend to be students at a particular school. Those problems have continued, they say, even though Saturn recently tightened its privacy measures in response to criticism from educators, parents, and experts.
On Saturn, students’ schedules and social-media accounts—including TikTok, Instagram, SnapChat, and Venmo—are visible to anyone on the app who is part of their school community, unless the user specifically opts out. Experts are skeptical most users will take the steps necessary to shield their data.
Another red flag, according to experts, is that the app doesn’t offer parent or teacher safety controls, because it’s made solely for students, not for educators, parents, or schools, according to the platform’s website.
“If it’s for the purpose of keeping a school schedule all in one place, wouldn’t it make sense to connect with schools?” said Laura Ordoñez, the head of digital content and curation at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that studies the impact of technology on young people. “What’s the purpose here? [They] are coming to the table as a time-management, schedule-management app, but there’s the social media aspect. Are they trying to really be more of a social media app?”
A spokesperson for Saturn said that students can make their profiles private, which conceals their schedules and social media links to anyone who they don’t voluntarily “friend” on the app. And even if students’ schedules are public, they are only available to other students at their school, as determined by the apps’ verification process, the spokeswoman explained.
“Our users do visit the preference page and some make the choice to make their schedule information private,” the Saturn spokeswoman said. “Users also have the ability to block specific other users from viewing their schedules.”
But experts aren’t convinced that students logging in to Saturn would understand that they needed to manually turn those protections on. And they aren’t sure it’s a great idea for a large number of people—even if they really are just fellow students—to have a breakdown of what classes, sports, and activities individual students go to on a daily or weekly basis, along with social media links.
That’s potentially dangerous information in the era of school shootings and other safety problems, Ordoñez said.
“You can be mad at someone, and you can know exactly where they are, at what time,” Ordoñez said. Saturn is “supposed to be building community, but high school is a volatile time. We know that there’s not only the good happening in high school, there’s the bad, there’s the negative, there’s the volatile.”
‘You may be talking to a bot or worse’
The app, which has been around since 2018, seems to be catching on a bit more recently, Ordoñez said. “It’s starting to have some popularity, it’s starting to pop up,” she said. “I think parents are starting to see it and then teachers are starting to see it.”
Unlike some free platforms that have a premium, monetized version, Ordoñez did not find paid features in her review of the app. Often, apps that don’t have paid features profit from selling user data, she said.
Since the app isn’t intended for parent and teacher use, it doesn’t have any parental controls. In fact, parents can only access their child’s data if the student emails Saturn to authorize it.
On its website, the company says it is not partnering with schools because it sees a market niche in connecting directly with students. “While many companies are working on building tools that they sell directly to schools and teachers, few have been building with the students at the center of their mission,” Saturn’s website says.
But even though the app says it’s just for high schoolers, it’s not hard for bots—or even potential predators—to get around that stipulation, Common Sense reported. To get onto the app, users must enter a birthdate that shows the person using the app is at least 13 years old, but not an adult, and provide a phone number.
Developers tightened those safety controls after parents expressed concerns the app could be used by predators. Now Saturn works to confirm that its users are truly high school students at the school they say they attend by checking to see if a user’s phone contacts are similar to, or include some of the same numbers, as those of others at that school, or by using a school email address, the platform’s website says.
But the company appears to acknowledge the challenges in verifying users this way.
“Where you go to school may impact how we are able to verify you,” the site’s FAQ says. “At many schools, email verification is not possible because the school doesn’t allow outside apps to use student emails for authentication. We cannot guarantee that every user is verified or that the processes will always catch individuals who try to use Saturn in violation” of its community guidelines. Those guidelines discourage activities like harassment, promoting self-harm, bullying, threats of violence, hate speech and more, the website says.
Since it’s not always possible to verify a person’s identity with a school email address, “the person who you’re talking to [on Saturn] may be a bot or worse,” said Stacey Hawthorne, the chief academic officer for Learn21, a nonprofit organization that works with schools on improving their use of education technology.
Saturn also has a feature allowing users to message one another. The platform also does not appear to monitor or moderate content on its own, instead leaving it up to users to flag inappropriate messaging.
“That seems insufficient, especially when it’s kids using it, who would be a more vulnerable population,” said Cathryn Shelton, an assistant professor of educational technology at Northern Arizona University.
Saturn countered that it works to “maintain rigorous content moderation processes in Saturn’s public channels, and also rely on user reporting,” the Saturn spokeswoman said.
“Content types that we moderate for include bullying/harassment, hate speech, violence and threats of violence, and self-harm, among others,” she said. “Saturn reserves the right to remove content, and suspend or remove users from the app. While we do not support functionality for administrators to directly monitor content on Saturn, we take measures to make Saturn a safe and positive environment for all our users.”
Shelton also finds it “icky” that an app like Saturn—and Gas, which was popular among high school students last year—can “push its way into schools,” she said.
“It’s literally infiltrating the school ecosystem, where it’s not welcomed, not invited, and causing potential harm as well.”