Keeping Our Kids Safe in This Digital World

Smart phones, tablets, computers – it’s hard to imagine keeping track of our kids and getting their homework done without these tools. However, the dark side of our children having access to technology is the possibility of them seeing things they can’t “unsee” and connecting with people who could harm them.

Ten years ago the idea of protecting our children on the Internet looked to parental controls to keep children from going to seamy websites. The rapidly changing world of apps has made that concept much more challenging.

Now, the best steps for keeping our children safe include education, knowing where they are and who they are interacting with, and understanding the apps that can lead them into dark places with people they don’t know.

Talk to Your Kids About What’s Out There

You only have to look at a few articles about Internet safety to realize the risks. There are stories of broken-hearted parents sharing how their children did everything they possibly could to get around the safety precautions they had carefully put in place. I’m talking about children as young as eight, who seemingly lost their innocence in the matter of a few clicks.

Dangerous Apps You Need to Know About

There are a number of apps known to be high-risk. This list changes as quickly as programmers come up with new apps, but may include some surprising ones that seem innocent enough on the surface. A common risk you’ll see is how many of these apps use GPS technology that allow the bad guys to know the location of your child.

  • Whisper is an anonymous confession app. It allows users to superimpose text over a picture 18in order to share their thoughts and feelings anonymously. Even though you post anonymously, it displays the area from which you’re posting. You can also search for users posting within a mile from you. I know of a case where a teacher had 25 different profiles on Whisper and was asking students at his school to post nude photos.
  • Yik-Yak is an app that allows users to post text-only “Yaks” of up to 200 characters. The messages can be viewed by the 500 Yakkers who are closest to the person who wrote the Yak, as determined by GPS tracking. There are numerous issues with this app, but a big one is that children can be exposed to and contribute sexually explicit content and personal attacks. Although posts are anonymous, kids often share personal information as they get more comfortable with others.
  • Kik Messenger is a private messenger app and frequently used by kids under 18. Kik allows kids to send private messages that their parents can’t see. This app also allows users to identify themselves by a made-up username, posing the dangers of anonymity. To make matters even scarier, third party websites allow users to search for people based on gender and age. There is very little you can do to verify the identity of someone on Kik, which obviously poses the risk of sexual predators chatting with your child.
  • Omegle allows you to chat or video chat. The participants are only identified as “You” and “Stranger.” You don’t have to register for the app, but you can connect Omegle to your Facebook account to find chat partners with similar interests. When choosing this feature, an Omegle Facebook App will receive your Facebook “likes” and try to match you with a stranger with similar likes. This app is the perfect channel for sexual predators.
  • Blendr is a flirting app to meet people through GPS services. There is no authentication of users, so adults (including predators) can attempt to meet minors and sext.
  • SnapChat allows a user to send photos and videos to anyone on his or her friend list. The sender can determine how long the receiver can view the image and then the image disappears after the allotted time. Users are duped into thinking their messages and nude photos are safe because they will disappear. But these “snaps” are easily recovered and can be preserved with a screen-shot and shared.
  • Poof allows users to make other apps “disappear” on their phone. Kids can hide any app they don’t want you to see by opening the app and selecting other apps. The good news is that this app is no longer available for purchase. However, if your child downloaded before it became unavailable, they may still have it. Similar apps are continuously being created. Others to look for: Hidden Apps, Hide It Pro and App Lock.

What’s Next?

There are many ways to address your concerns. Start by having a family discussion about media rules, such as getting permission from a parent before downloading a new app or game, when and where devices can be used, and the fact that you may check their devices periodically. Consider collecting devices before bedtime and set up a common charging area so you can easily check phones.

Remember, older teens will go to great lengths to stay connected, including purchasing an older, broken phone and running it on Wi-Fi so they can chat through the night. Consider changing your Wi-fi password often, so kids need to ask permission to connect.  Some families give out the Wi-fi password after their children’s list of chores has been completed.

Visit staysafeonline.org for ideas on how to discuss these issues, the latest parental controls and dangerous apps. Whatever steps you take, keep an open dialog with your kids and stay on top of the latest threats to their safety.