With careful monitoring, many apps and social media sites can be used safely by teens and tweens. Others have no place on a child’s phone or device under any circumstances. But in the rapidly-evolving online world, how are parents supposed to learn the difference?
Before we get into specifics, it’s important for parents to keep a few things in mind. First, what often attracts kids to certain apps or social media sites is the fact that they don’t tend to attract parents. Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and other popular sites are not without risk, but may not present as much danger as sites such as MySpace and Tumblr, which have begun to skew toward a younger audience. Second, privacy settings can make a huge difference in determining the safety and appropriateness of any social media site or app, regardless of the audience. Knowing what apps your child is using, monitoring their content, keeping personal information private, and allowing interaction with only “real life” friends and family is the first line of defense in keeping your child safe online.
Parents must also be aware of sites that don’t feature any restrictions on content or images, regardless of the user’s age. While image-sharing sites such as Tumblr or Reddit can attract a wide audience and feature a variety of interests, there a number of areas of those sites that utilize pornographic or otherwise harmful content in order to specifically target teens and tweens. SnapChat has recently been the subject of a lot of internet safety discussions because of the potential for its photo-sharing feature to be used for sexting, and messaging apps such as Kik and YikYak offer the opportunity for cyberbullying, stalking, or contact from child predators. Apps like FourSquare or Facebook’s “check in” feature, while not necessarily inappropriate, will reveal a child’s location in real time—not a safe practice if this information is visible to anyone who’s not a trusted friend or family member. Again, however, parents may choose to allow their children to use these apps as long as privacy settings are high and parents keep a close eye on content.
There will always be some apps that are best suited for adults only, though. “Hook up” apps such as Down (formerly Bang with Friends) are designed to provide adults with opportunities to have sex, and have no place on a child’s device. Other apps, such as Omegle, deliberately pair users with “random strangers” to chat.
In the final analysis, the best thing parents can do is stay aware and alert. Know what’s on your child’s phone or device, and keep an eye on what they’re sharing as well as what’s being shared with them. If you see an app that you’re not familiar with, ask your child what it’s for, and don’t be afraid to do your own research on it. Your child’s safety depends on your willingness to be nosy—even if your child doesn’t care for that idea.