In the ever-evolving world of apps, here’s what to watch for to keep kids safe.
Published: March 24, 2020
By: Christine Elgersma
For some parents, trying to stay on top of their kids’ social media usage is like playing technology whack-a-mole: By the time you’ve got your Snapchat ready to deliver, your kids have moved on to Instagram or TikTok.
In the ever-evolving world of apps, it’s often a dizzying challenge for parents to keep up. Kids’ natural ability to gravitate fluidly to the next cool thing can reinforce parental worries that their kids might be vulnerable to social media pitfalls.
For parents trying to stay a step ahead, here’s a guide to some of the most common social media red flags, the apps they’re found in and how to deal with them.
Most kids use apps safely, so a red flag doesn’t necessarily mean they should avoid a particular app. Also, problematic features can usually be disabled.
Remember, the best approach is talking to your children about using social media safely, responsibly and respectfully.
ADS AND IN-APP PURCHASES. Examples: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. Many free apps make their money by providing purchase opportunities. Some track what you buy and show you targeted ads, and some even offer targeted chats with businesses, which means your kid could be invited into a chat with someone trying to sell a product.
What to do: Set limits with your kids about in-app purchases and check out the types of ads. Then alert your kids to the different kinds of digital marketing and discuss how they should respond if someone tries to sell them something online.
AGE-INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT. Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat. Sure, messages from your kids’ friends can be more explicit than you’d like — sexting is a prime offender — but perhaps a bigger concern is an app that features user-generated content inappropriate for your kid’s age.
ANONYMITY. Yolo, Whisper, Lipsi. Hiding behind their anonymity, people on certain sites can feel they are untouchable and end up hurting other users. Also, though kids may feel safe enough to share sensitive or painful things, they may be attacked for it and not receive the support they need.
What to do: Make sure your teens understand the risks and know how to block and report other users. Also, if they need to talk about a problem they’re uncomfortable sharing with you, provide opportunities for them to share with other trusted people.
CYBERBULLYING. Instagram, Snapchat, Roblox, Twitter. This remains a major concern that can happen on any social media app. If it allows anonymous posting and is used in schools, it’s a safe bet it will be abused.
What to do: Try to get a sense of any trouble by asking around and paying attention to what parents, teachers and other kids are saying. Make sure your kids understand how to report and block other users, and refer to school policy on cyberbullying.
LOCATION TRACKING AND SHARING. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram. Wherever you go, your social media apps may know about it. When you allow location identification — even if your profile only indicates a city or neighborhood — you’re often tracked within a city block, and your posts can include your location.
What to do: Turn off location settings on the phone AND in the app. Then check to see whether previous posts include location information and delete it.
PUBLIC DEFAULT SETTINGS. Instagram, TikTok, Twitter. Profiles are public by default on some apps, meaning a kid’s name, picture and posts are available to everyone.
What to do: As soon as you download the app, go into the settings to check the defaults. If a kid is using the same program on a browser, check there, too.
RANDOM OR LIVE VIDEO CHAT. HOLLA, Monkey, ChatLive. Any app that invites kids to “meet new friends” is in some way enabling chats with strangers, and it usually has lots of sexual content and adults trying to hook up.
What to do: It might be best for your teens to meet new friends via an app based on a particular interest, with text-based group forums so they can find their people.
REAL-TIME VIDEO STREAMING. YouNow, Instagram, Twitch. Live streaming makes it very easy for kids to share personal information they didn’t mean to without knowing exactly who’s watching. Embarrassing or mean moments are easily captured and shared later.
What to do: Try to find out why your kids want to share videos of themselves and discuss what’s appropriate. Direct your teen’s creativity toward constructive uses, like using editing programs to create shorts or creating an interest-based channel.
SECRET CHAT ROOMS. Discord, IMVU. Whether invitation-only or drop-in, chat rooms are risky because they are open to no-holds-barred conversations. Some private chats are intended for sexual content; others are forums for hate speech. Even if kids create private groups to avoid the problems associated with public groups, chat rooms still make it more difficult for parents to know what their kids are doing online.
What to do: It’s OK if kids create or use a private chat room with friends to safeguard against strangers, but you should have them tell you before they join so you can check it out. In general, kids should be cautioned about joining chat rooms and to be on the alert for predatory behavior.
“TEMPORARY” PICTURES AND VIDEOS. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Confide. Pictures and texts of a compromising nature get kids in hot water because nothing shared between devices is truly private or temporary.
What to do: Let your kids know that nothing they send will disappear, and that it’s easy for others to share what they’ve sent. Explain to your kids how “disappearing” pictures got others into trouble — and that there’s no reason it couldn’t happen to them.
TOXIC CULTURE. 4Chan, 8Chan, Discord, Twitch. Some sites and apps attract trolls and other confrontational-types who get in your face to express extreme views. Some kids are drawn into this provocative communication, even though it can quickly escalate into bullying, sexism and hate speech.
What to do: Toxic culture can really mess with kids’ self-esteem. Seek to understand why your kids want to use certain platforms, and assure that they know how to deflect negativity and then report it.
This story was reprinted from Common Sense Media, where Christine Elgersma serves as Senior Editor of Parent Education.