Most of us know this familiar routine. Your son or daughter often may ask, “Can I have your phone?” Or maybe you have teenagers who disappear into their rooms or the folds of the couch on their own devices.
Kids just aren’t using text messages to communicate with friends; instead, there are many social apps to download — for chatting, sharing videos and photos, or playing games. As a parent, do you know what your kids are using? We provide some popular communication apps, how kids are using them and ways parents can monitor what their kids are up to online.
Discord . . . is most likely used by your kid if he or she is a gamer. This free voice, video and text app is designed for teens and adults ages 13 and older. It allows users to send direct messages to one another and/or engage in group chats when they are playing together. Teens can join public groups, ask to join private groups or start a group on their own. Some groups are more moderated than others, some are meant for adults and some may even share explicit and inappropriate content. There are parental controls, however, to set your child’s account so that they are only joining private groups with people they know in real life, as opposed to strangers.
Kik . . . a free messaging app that features exclusive emojis, ecards and minigames. Kik offers users anonymity and a platform that makes it easy for them to connect with strangers. Teens can join public chats centered around any topic in which they have an interest. Signing up is very easy and doesn’t require much information. Parents should know that it is an app where inappropriate behavior can flourish.
Snapchat . . . is hugely popular among those from ages 13-24. It allows users to exchange photos and videos with others online, but once the content is viewed, it disappears within seconds. However, the receiver can take a screenshot of the picture before it disappears and create a permanent copy — though the sender is notified when this happens. Users also can create private messaging threads and group chats among themselves. Parents should know that snapchat offers location sharing options. Users can make their location public, choose specific friends to share their location with or hide their location altogether by going into Ghost Mode.
Houseparty . . . a video-focused social media app that is another way for kids to stay connected. This app allows kids to connect with up to eight friends at the same time, via live video and texts. The idea is for kids to add people they know to the party. Parents should know that if a child doesn’t “lock” their chat room and choose private settings, random strangers can join the video chat.
TikTok . . . boasts more than 100 million users and is fast becoming the new kid craze. It’s a free social media app that allows users to watch, create and share short videos. The most popular videos highlight users lip syncing or dancing to popular music. Parents should know that when their child signs up for TikTok the account is public by default, meaning anyone can see your child’s video and location, as well as send them messages. To prevent this, you must turn on the privacy settings for your child’s account.
WhatsApp . . . provides a quick and easy way to text and make a video or voice call over the internet for free. This app is a big draw for those who need to keep up with family members traveling out of the country. As long as you are connected to the internet, you can share pictures, audio and video messages without cost. Kids love the app because it makes group messaging easy. Users can take part in chats consisting of friends, family and even complete strangers. A group can consist of 256 people at once, making it easy for information to go viral quickly, even if it is false information, inappropriate pictures or videos.
Whisper . . . a social media app that offers posters complete anonymity. Users post either real or fake thoughts, confessions or secrets using a random nickname that the app assigns when they join. The app was originally intended for college-age students, but has trickled down to younger users. Parents should know that Whisper is rated for ages 17 and older due to mature and suggestive themes. Also, users can grant location permissions, which means their locations will show up with their posts.
Instagram . . . a mobile-friendly photo sharing social networking app. Kids love this app because it is image driven. Users can share pictures and add filters to make them more appealing. Others are then able to comment on the photos. Parents should know that photos and videos shared on Instagram are made public by default unless privacy settings are adjusted. Keeping the page public could open possibilities of cyber-bullying via the comments posted.
Keep Kids Safe Online
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has been in operation for nearly 20 years. According to Special Investigations Chief Richard Bell, who oversees the ICAC Task Force, over the years there has been a steady increase in the number of predators attempting to entice kids online.
“The number of tips we’ve received has exploded from 2,000 to 7,000 per year,” Bell says. “Unmonitored access to online apps is a quick path to opening a door for your child to become a victim.”
Bell adds that ICAC is concerned about the random person that your children might be talking to on the apps loaded on their phones, computers, XBox or Playstation.
“The problem is that parents don’t understand the apps their children are using,” Bell says. “There’s a risk of danger with just about any app used where you can share information and have a private conversation with a random person that you’ve never talked to before. It’s not just the TikTok, Whisper or Houseparty app that can quickly put you in touch with strangers, but also the old standby apps, such as Facebook and Instagram.”
“Kids are using apps and meeting people that are talking them into doing things that compromises their safety,” says Dr. Jay Berk, psychologist at Jay Berk Ph.D, and Associates.
According to Berk, some kids are more susceptible to danger than others. For example, children who are impulsive, depressed and anxious can go online and build relationships with people who are suffering from similar issues, and as a result, their challenges can deepen.
The Internet, he says, also is very enticing to children who have social anxiety because they can pretend to be whoever they want as they connect with people whom they haven’t met in real life. He adds keeping kids safe starts with parents being proactive.
Berk and Bell offer a few steps parents can take to ensure the safety of their children while on a variety of apps:
- Have a conversation with your children about online safety.
- Require your child to gain your permission before accessing new apps.
- Limit the amount of time your child spends on the internet.
- Teach kids to balance their time between real life connections and Internet apps.
- Spend time with your children online; know their online friends and habits.
- Visit websites, such as ICAC’s, that offer updated safety information about various Internet apps.
- Put monitoring apps on your child’s phone and let them know that the app will track their Internet activity.
- Lobby your neighborhood school to provide digital education in the elementary school years.