Are Mobile Applications Putting Your Child at Risk?
By Kathy Hatem, Director of Communications for Enough Is Enough
CHILD: “Hey Mom, I just met this really cool guy outside in the neighborhood. I think he likes me. Would it be okay for us to hang out in my bedroom?”
PARENT/S: “Are you out of your mind?”
While no parent I know would entertain this request, parents are unwittingly allowing this very scenario to play out daily in their own homes through the use of cell phones, computers, gaming consoles, and other devices used by their children. Today’s teens spend up to nine hours a day using media, consumed with popular apps and communicating behind the confines of a glass screen.
Here’s the problem. Many of these apps put kids at risk of being targeted and groomed by predators through chat and messaging features, whether video, audio or text. Although most apps require users to be at least 13 years of age, children can easily lie about their age in order to join these sites, risking exposure to content and activities suitable only for more a more mature audience. This is one of the reasons why we are part of #FixAppRatings, joining the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Protect Young Eyes and others allies in the movement in calling for an independent app review board to approve the age-rating of the top-used apps.
Enough Is Enough recently promoted The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office graphic “15 Apps Parents Should Know About.” While many well-known apps are not featured on this list as they were not used during the sheriff’s Operation Intercept VI, listed below are just a few they say men used to contact and have sex with 14-year-olds.
-Hot or Not: This app encourages users to rate your profile, check out people in the area and chat with strangers. The goal of this app is to hook up.
– Whisper: This is an anonymous social network that promotes sharing secrets with strangers. It also reveals a user’s location so people can meet up.
– Meetme: It’s a dating social media app that allows users to connect with people based on geographic proximity. As the app’s name suggests, users are encouraged to meet each other in person.
Other more well-known apps used during their operation include:
– Snapchat: It’s one of the most popular apps of recent years. While the app promises users can send a photo or video and it will disappear, recent features including “stories” allow users to view content for up to 24 hours. Snapchat also allows users to see your location
-Tiktok: A new mobile device app popular with kids that’s used for creating and sharing short videos. With very limited privacy controls, users are vulnerable to cyber bullying and explicit content.
Of course, there’s a long list of mobile applications kids gravitate to which are not mentioned above. A 2018 study by Common Sense Media found that teens overwhelmingly choose Snapchat (41%) as their main social media site, followed by Instagram (22%) and Facebook (15%). Of course, kids also flock to Twitter, WhatsApp, and a host of others used for microblogging, live video streaming, video/photo-sharing, texting, and chatting/dating.
Teens (and certainly not kids under 13 years old who shouldn’t be on these apps given the app’s age restrictions) are spending enormous amounts of time on a daily basis communicating with others, putting them at greater risk than ever before of being preyed upon. All too often, we hear the stories of an adult male who makes a fake social media profile, and over time grooms a child, gains the child’s trust, and ultimately asks for nude photos (possibly threatening/blackmailing the child if he or she don’t comply).
Additionally, a predator will typically engage other forms of sexual interactions and often seeks in-person sexual encounters. We must let kids know that unless he or she knows a person in real life, that person is not their friend, and never to send pictures or any other personally identifiable information, and certainly never meet that person offline.
In August, a Forsyth, Georgia man was arrested after police say he solicited nude photographs and videos from dozens of teenage girls across the country using a Snapchat account. It was also alleged he threatened to publicly expose three victims if they refused to send him the nude photographs and videos, in one case threatening a 12-year-old girl to send nude photographs of her to her friends on Instagram if she didn’t comply.
Parents must be vigilant about what kids do on all their Internet-enabled devices. Don’t take their word for it when they insist they’ll “be okay” and that know what dangers and red flags to look for. Kids and youth are not able to deal with a manipulative predator’s grooming techniques.
As the parent, you set the rules. Furthermore, don’t fall for the trap of your child insisting “every kid in my school is on this app” and assume all will be well. Instead, follow these initial steps before allowing your child access to a device that can put him or her in contact with a predator.
A few reminders to discuss with your kids when using apps:
- Be as anonymous as possible (do not post or share additional information)
- Use strict privacy settings
- Avoid in-person meetings
- Be honest about their age when signing up for apps
- Remember social networking sites are public spaces
- Avoid posting anything that could embarrass them later or expose them to danger (think before they post)
- Remember that people aren’t always who they say they are
- Avoid inappropriate content and behavior, and, if encountered, report it to the social networking site
Before allowing your child to download any apps, be sure to set up parental controls and use privacy settings on any device utilized by your child that connects to the internet, including smart phones, laptops, tablets, and gaming systems. We’ve got a great resource here with links to help walk you through each type of device.
Finally, monitor, monitor, monitor when it comes to your child’s access to others via the internet. Apps may not be what they appear to be, as is the case with the Calculator% app. It looks like an innocent calculator app on an iPhone or Android device, but can be used to hide photos, videos, files, and even browser history. And don’t become too complacent just because you have familiarized yourself with an app and set up the necessary settings and parental controls.
Police warn often times predators will chat with kids on children’s apps or games, and then try to get them to join them on another app or social media site where they can begin the grooming process. The watchful eyes of parents are sometimes the best protection a parent can offer a child when it comes to social media and internet use.
Technology can offer amazing opportunities for kids to interact, learn, investigate and explore. However, an all-access, free rein pass into the digital word can open up incredibly dangerous doors to dangerous people, even criminals and harmful content such as hard core pornography. Remember to secure your child’s safety in the digital world. Just as you do in the in your own home with locks, bolts, gates, alarms, curfews and rules, so too must we ensure a child’s safety in the digital world.
In short, follow these safety “Rules N Tools” tips to get started and apply them to every device used by your child:
- Establish an ongoing dialogue and keep lines of communication open.
- Supervise use of all Internet-enabled devices.
- Know your child’s online activities and friends
- Be sure your children use privacy settings on all social media platforms.
- Periodically check your child’s online activity by viewing your browser’s history.
- Set parental controls including age-appropriate filters,
- Use monitoring software, and parent-approved buddy/gamer lists
- Set time limits and turn on the time-limiting parental control tool.
For more information, visit our Safety & Prevention section on InternetSafety101.org, and print out a copy of the Rules ‘N Tools checklist. Also, be sure to use our Youth Pledge to be signed by both the parent and the child.
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