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Do Date Rape Apps Make You Safer or Just Freak Out Your Friends?

First semester is high season for sexual assault on campus. Of course, there's an app for that now. But personal safety tech comes with its own set of risks—like social suicide. We test drove the top five apps

At colleges around the country, the beginning of the school year also marks the start of a high season for sexual assault. According to a Justice Department study, the majority of incidents occur between the first day of registration and Thanksgiving break, a period that’s known as the “Red Zone.” The study also found that incoming freshman are particularly vulnerable, which is why many schools have introduced mandatory crash courses on sexual assault during orientation. But avoiding jungle juice in frat-house basements can only protect you so much, what you really need, apparently, is…an app.

A fleet of new anti-sexual-assault apps for your phone claim to offer peace of mind with one-touch shortcuts that alert friends or law enforcement that you need help. The concept hinges primarily on what experts call “bystander interventions,” where a third party steps in to get the victim out of an uncomfortable situation.

Like you, we wanted to know how an app could ever be more convenient than, say, screaming or dialing 911. That moment you’re being cornered by a creepy dude in a bar or bedroom just doesn’t seem ideal for fumbling through your iPhone trying to find an app you’ve never used. That’s what Tasers are for! Also, what if you battery dies? Or you don’t have service?

It’s obviously a good thing that developers are thinking about ways technology can help with such a serious national issue. The more resources we have, the better. But you’re still probably better off taking a self-defense class than relying on one of these apps to get you out of harm’s way. For now, at least, they seem to cause more problems than they solve—but there are a few great ideas in the mix. We took the top five in the category for a test drive.

Circle of Six

This app was one of the winners of the Apps Against Abuse challenge issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, and was designed specifically for college students. The cliquiest of the options, Circle of Six asks you to select up to six people “you can count on to have your back.” If you can’t think of six friends who would drop everything to come rescue you, then you better go make some before you get started.

The app provides you with three different alerts to send out to your circle in moments of need. The first, represented by a car icon, sends a message asking your friends to come pick you up, along with your GPS location. (The temptation to use this feature in non-emergency situations greatly increases after a few drinks.)

The second alert, signified by a phone icon, sends out a message asking your circle to call you so you have an excuse to remove yourself from a situation. Celebrities do this all the time, except they just put the phone up to their ear and pretend someone’s there—that seems a lot easier to us.

The third option is simply baffling. When you press what looks like a conversation bubble, it sends out a text to all six of your friends that reads, “I’m looking up information about healthy relationships and respect. Just letting you know.” As to why an automated message like this is necessary, or why anyone would ever want to send it, the developers explain that it “keeps your circle informed of what’s on your mind,” whatever that means. What it will definitely do is keep people informed that you’re kind of a drag and super weird. Too serious and desperate for attention—the worst kind of drama queen. They should change the icon on this feature to a mushroom cloud and call it the nuclear option, because if you put your finger on that button more than once and aren’t pranking, you’re gonna need six new friends pretty fast.

Guardly

The instant you open this app, you activate a ticking time bomb with a 10-second countdown on the clock that will alert all of your emergency contacts via email, text message and phone call if you don’t defuse it. Nine. Eight. Is your finger a little dry? Six. Having trouble unlocking your iPhone screen? Four. Three. SHIT. Too late, MacGruber! The police are on their way.

Stopping the timer once it starts is hard enough even when you open Guardly on purpose, but there’s also the very real possibility of butt opening the app and not even knowing it. Better yet, the alerts invite everyone in your list to an online “Emergency Response Page” where they can “collaborate” on how to solve your emergency. (Dad, who’s having heart attack: “Kick him in the balls!” BFF: “OMG are you OK?”)

Think about how many times you’ve accidentally opened the Facebook app when you meant to hit Twitter. The likelihood of you unnecessarily freaking out all of your friends and family with this app are far greater than your chances of actually needing it.

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