Here I’m reviewing Stars messaging, which our family has recently started using. It’s a phone and tablet app for families and kids who want a way to message each other without requiring a phone number. In other words, it can even work on a tablet with no data plan (so long as there is a Wi-Fi connection). You can even do video chat.
Best of all, Stars never looks at your address book or contacts, so it’s really safe if you want to restrict who can and can’t contact you or your kids with it. It’s free and there were no ads at the time of writing – here it is on the Android Play Store and Apple App Store.
Even for families who already have separate phone numbers and data plans who are able to use standard text messaging or WhatsApp, Stars offers some unique features that set it apart and make it a great alternative to other messaging options.
First I’ll briefly explain how Stars works (it’s super-easy), then outline the pros and cons, and then I’ll explain why I feel it’s a safer fit for kids than other messaging apps on the market.
Above: Private family messaging with Stars app. Can you tell that my kids like the Octonauts?!
How Stars works
After installing the app and signing up (it’s easy and you don’t even need to provide an email address), a Stars username and PIN will be given to you through the app. The PIN is less like a super-secret bank PIN, and more like a “this proves you know me” code. No need to remember it – Stars shows your code to you on the app.
At first, no-one will know how to contact you on Stars. That’s a good thing – it means no strangers can contact your kids by guessing at a number or username. So, you’ll want to get your family on Stars. Each family member simply follows the same steps on their tablet or phone by getting the Stars app, so you’ll each wind up with usernames and PIN’s.
To add just one person to message with
You can either message one-to-one by adding each other in the app – enter the username and PIN of the person you want to connect with, and once they accept your add request, you can message each other. You won’t need to enter usernames and PIN’s again for that person; that’s a one-off step only for when you first connect.
To message in a group
For most families though, you’re more likely to want to message in a group instead of one-to-one; at least this was the case for our family. Have an adult member create a group; just tap on “Create new group”. You can call the group whatever you like, e.g. “Smith family”. Stars will give you a group username and PIN. Just have your family members tap on “Join a group” in their Stars app and tell them the group username and PIN: you can tell them this info verbally if they’re with you, or you can email them or whatever. It doesn’t matter how you tell them, just as long as they know the group username and PIN to join (this is a one-off step that only needs to be done once). Then they’ll enter this information in the “join group” dialog, and just like that, you’re all texting to each other in the same group. This is how we did it, and it has been working wonderfully for us!
- Choice of fonts and colors – no boring black-and-white (or blue-and-white) texts. You can message with a choice of fonts and colors, which is wonderful. We’ve noticed this feature is especially helpful in group convos, where each person can pick their own style, allowing them to have their own “voice”.
- Group messaging is super-easy to set up.
- Stars provides plenty of fun emojis, or you can use your regular emojis from your keyboard. They’ve really made this a fun experience for both kids and adults to use.
- Very safe for children and families (see below under “Safety” for details of why).
- Full multi-media – besides texts, you can also send photos, audio or video if you wish.
- Video chat - this is a feature that was added recently. My son can do video chat with his friend, tablet-to-tablet. Video chat works for 2 people, you can't use it for groups, but it's ideal for when your child wants to chat with friends. However, it doesn't always work and you might wind up not being able to connect.
- Has had some technical glitches recently. Occasionally the app fails and messages don't go through, although in the past it used to work much more reliably than that. Video chat doesn't always work. Although it's OK for casual use, I wouldn't recommend Stars for something where keeping in touch is critically important.
- Calling the code a PIN is not the best choice for user experience. I feel it’s counter-productive to the idea that a PIN is something that should be kept secret. Instead it would be better in terms of teaching kids if the Stars PIN was instead called something else, to keep the idea that a true PIN should never be shared. Ideally you would want to call the Stars PIN a term that implies it is in fact designed to be shared with a trusted person e.g. a “Handshake Code” instead.
The great thing in terms of safety is that you can re-set your PIN at any time with just one tap. This won’t affect any existing messaging threads; it just means that new friend requests will require your new PIN. If you receive an add request from someone you don’t want to communicate with, you can just re-set your PIN and they can’t send you another add request. For kids, it’s good practice to only invite one friend at a time and after that friend has joined, to reset the PIN so that others can’t request adding from the first friend telling them the PIN.
How Stars stacks up compared to other no-phone messaging apps
Stars is definitely a safer choice than other no-phone-required messaging apps. The only two other no-phone options that I could find were Monster Messenger and Kik. Monster Messenger stacks up very well in most regards, and even offers parental controls. However, the big disadvantage of Monster Messenger is that it contains a Newsfeed (see reference 1). It’s moderated, but it means that your kids are exposed to content from people that they don’t know. I wouldn’t want my kid clicking on an article or on a stranger’s profile page. Kik is rather dangerous, having little to no safety features for kids. In particular, any stranger who guesses your or any child’s Kik username by making bunches of random guesses can send them a message. Indeed child predators have been doing exactly that (see reference 2).
Stars has a blend of features that create a very safe environment. A stranger would need to know not only the username but also the PIN of someone they wanted to contact, making it highly unlikely that they would guess both. Even then, they can’t communicate with you unless you accept their add request. And since you can reset the PIN in one tap, this also creates a “moving target”, making it even harder for someone to guess your username and PIN anyway.
Another safety feature is that Stars never looks at your address book, so other people can’t contact you or your child (unlike for example most phone messaging apps). Yet another thing that makes it safe is that Stars has gotten privacy baked into its design by default. It’s not like social media or other apps which start out with public sharing by default and require settings changes to become private. Stars is already private by default – no settings to mess around with.
Stars is also not searchable – they’ve stated that there is no way for anyone to search names or usernames on Stars (see reference 3). No-one would know if your child is or is not using Stars, unless your child tells them. Even then, no-one can even request to connect with your child unless they know your child’s username and PIN.
Recommendations if you plan to use Stars
When we first signed up for Stars, we were initially confused by “name” and “username”. What should you enter and who sees what? OK, here are the answers:
Name (e.g. Jack):
“Name” is displayed below each text in the convo thread. For this reason, I recommend putting in first name only in the signup field for “Name”, which is what we all did (e.g. “Jack”). Since our kids were only going to be messaging with us or with someone they already knew in real life, it makes it less confusing for everyone in the convo when reading texts to have the real first name than if, say, the text is signed “AwesomeGuy281”. Even as a mom I’d find that hard to keep up with, and I don’t know if Grandma or anyone else is going to even remember that this means Jack. So for most purposes for a standard set-up, you’d want everyone just to put their first name only (or whatever nickname/short name they’re called, e.g Kathy) in the “Name” field. If you have a very common name and think you may wind up messaging with someone that may have the same name as you, then first name and last initial could be a good option here.
These are just my recommendations; ultimately it’s up to you what decision is best for you and your child.
Username (e.g. AwesomeGuy281):
Almost no-one ever sees your username. Even the organizer of group messages only sees names and not usernames in their member list. But you will need to pass your username on to someone (along with your PIN) if you want them to be able to message you on Stars, so you don’t want something really embarrassing. On the other hand, you don’t want it to be too basic because in theory, a hacker might guess your username – but even then you’re still safe because they cannot contact you without knowing your PIN. For username, I suggest you pick something that’s hard to guess but that is not too embarrassing or weird to pass along to friends.
Stars is a safe and private messaging app that is ideal for families. It is easy to use for all ages, and it’s very well designed with color and font choices, and fun new emojis. The major downside is that it's recently had some technical issues where it doesn't always work reliably. I'm hoping these glitches will get ironed out soon.
To sum up, it's very safe, but is less than stellar when it comes to performance and reliability.
1. Bark Technologies, March 2018. Is Monster Messenger actually safer for kids? Bark blog.
2. Andrew Liptak, Aug 2017. Kik has become ‘the defacto app’ for child predators, according to an investigative report The Verge.
3. Connect Works, Inc. How is Stars Safe Stars app website, FAQ section.