It’s a question I get several times a year from anxious parents, either via a direct message, an email or even in line at the grocery store. It goes something like this: “What’s the one thing you wish you’d done better when monitoring your kids’ technology?”
Both of my kids are now young adults, and together, we survived a handful of digital mishaps. So, I tend to have a few answers ready. I’ll go into one of those answers in this post, and here it is: I’d physically pick up their phone more often and ask questions about the apps I didn’t recognize.
And here’s why.
There are the apps on your child’s phone that are familiar. They are the easy ones. We know what color they are, what their graphic avatars look like — the little ghost on the yellow background, the little bird, the camera on the bright purple and orange background. We may have gone through the app together or even use one or two of the apps ourselves. There’s Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Kik, and Instagram, among others. There are the mainstay photo apps (VSCO, Facetune, PicsArt) and games (The Sims, Fortnite, Minecraft). We may not like all the apps, but we’ve likely talked about the risks and feel comfortable with how your kids use them. With general recognition, it’s easy to have a false sense of security about what apps our kids are using.
Then, there are the apps on your child’s phone you know nothing about — and there are plenty. Rather than dismiss your concern because you don’t understand the app or because you may not have the energy to start an argument, next time, think about pausing to take a closer look. If you have concerns, address them sooner rather than later.
Questions to consider when analyzing an app or online community:
- What’s the goal of this app? Why was it created?
- What kind of community does this app attract?
- What is the age requirement?
- Are anonymous accounts allowed?
- What privacy settings does it have?
- Can kids run up charges on this app?
- Does the app require location information to use it?
- What red flags are people talking about (google it)?
- What do the app reviews say? What do non-profit advocacy groups such as Common Sense Media say about this app?
Potentially Risky Apps, Community Forums
Here are just a few of the non-mainstream apps that kids use that may not be on your radar but may need a second look. Note: Every app has the potential to be misused. The apps mentioned here are also used every day for connection, entertainment, and harmless fun. Here are just a few this author has had experience with, and others commonly documented in the media.
Quick Tip: It’s possible a child might bury an app inside a folder or behind other apps on their home screens, making it harder to find. By going into settings in either iOS (Settings > General > iPhone Storage) or Android (Google Play Store > Apps >All), you can usually get a quick view of all the apps that exist on a phone.
Almost every app has privacy gaps if settings and monitoring are neglected. However, apps such as Live.Me, Game Pigeon, and Zoomerang (among many others) may have loopholes when it comes to age verification, location tracking, and gaps in personal data security. These gaps can give potential predators access to kids and increases opportunities for cyberbullying.
Safe Family Tip: Sit down with your kids, go through any unfamiliar apps, and use parental controls to monitor all family device activity.
If a child wants to keep activity or content secret from a parent, they will likely find a way. Some of the apps kids use to hide games, photos, or texts are encryption apps (apps that scramble content to outside sources) such as WhatsApp, Proton VPN, ProtonMail, Telegram, and Signal. Other secrecy apps are called vault apps (apps that can be disguised, hidden, or locked), such as Calculator, Vault, HideItPro, App Locker, and Poof.
Safe Family Tip: If you find one of these apps on your child’s phone, stay calm. Kids want privacy, which is normal. However, if the content you see is risky, remind your child that no content is 100% private, even if it’s in a vault app. In addition, commit to the ongoing dialogue that strengthens trust and together, considers setting safety expectations for devices, which may include parental controls.
Some apps, especially dating-type apps, require users to allow geotagging to connect you with people in your area. Yubo, which is an app like Tinder, is one your kids may be using that requires location to use it. Live.Me is another geotagging app.
Safe Family Tip: Go over the reasons location apps (and dating apps) are dangerous with your child. Sharing their location and meeting In Real Life (IRL) has become the norm to many kids. Remind them of the risks of this kind of behavior and together, put new boundaries in place.
The web is full of sketchy, dark pockets kids can stumble into. They can hear about a community forum or app from a friend and be wowed simply because it’s different and edgy. While there are plenty of harmless conversations taking place on these apps, spaces such as Discord, Reddit, and Twitch have reportedly housed communities’ extreme ideologies that target vulnerable kids.
Safe Family Tip: Be aware of behavior changes. Talk with your kids about the wide range of ideals and agendas promoted online, how to think critically about conversations and content, and most importantly, how to spot these communities.
Anonymity online is problematic for a plethora of reasons. Apps such as Yolo, Tumblr, and Tellonym, Omegle, YikYak, Whisper, LMK, MeetMe, are just a few of those apps to look for. Many of these apps are chat apps used to eventually meet up with new friends in real life (IRL). However, when apps allow anonymous accounts, it’s almost impossible to trace inappropriate content, threats, or bullying incidents.
Safe Family Tip: Kids get excited about making friends and having new experiences— so much so, they can ignore potential consequences. Discuss issues that may arise (catfishing, sextortion, scams, bullying) when people hide behind anonymous names and profiles. If needed, give real examples from the news where these apps have been connected to tragic outcomes.
Several apps and online communities have been connected to violence, hate content, intolerance, and fanaticism. A few of these sites include 4Chan, 8Chan, AnyChan, Gab, SaidIt.Net, and 8Kun, among many others.
Safe Family Tip: Note any behavior changes in your child. Talk often about digital literacy and being a responsible publisher (and consumer) of media online.
Staying in step with your child’s latest and greatest app affinity isn’t easy, and every parent makes mistakes in how they approach the task. However, kids of all ages (no matter how tech-savvy they are) need boundaries, expectations, and consistent and honest dialogue when it comes to digital habits and staying safe online. If you don’t know where to start (or start over), one first step is to start today and commit to staying aware of the digital risks out there. In addition, make time to have regular, open conversations with your child about their favorite apps — the ones you know about and the ones you may not.
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