Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
The list of what apps are dangerous to kids keeps changing. This is because children and teens drop apps that get banned and limited by parenting filters, moving on to another app. This isn’t new or limited to children, as the move from Myspace to Facebook and on to other social media sites by adults demonstrates. This means parents need to understand what makes apps dangerous to kids, so that they can limit or prohibit any and all apps that pose a risk to their children.
Chatting with Strangers
If you tell your children not to talk to strangers unsupervised because of the risk of them being abducted or told things you wouldn’t want them to hear, why would you let them have an app on their phone that encourages them to connect with strangers and “connect” with them through an exchange of information? Apps like Spotafriend are even worse, connecting kids with “potential friends” in their area while sharing their location. If you wouldn’t want your teen going to a stranger’s house due to safety concerns, why would you let them have an app that encourages the same?
Another problem on these sites is chatbots. The chatbots engage someone in conversation, then try to direct them to porn sites. Malware site redirects are less common but do pop up.
Unrestricted Sharing of Images and Video
Where there is unrestricted sharing of images and video, there is sexual content. Don’t be fooled by apps that limit themselves to kids under 18, since predators who want to ask under-aged girls for sexy photos and nude photos simply need to lie about their age to set up an account. Then there’s the fact that sharing racy content can put it in the hands of teens who would share it for others’ edification or to embarrass the person who shared it.
One solution is to ban any app from your child’s phone that allows unrestricted sharing of images and video. Another is educating your child on all the ways this can and will go wrong. For example, two young teens sharing sexy or nude photos of themselves can get the boy registered as a sex offender for generating and sharing child porn. Live streaming apps that reward you for continuing the live stream are particularly bad because it leads to kids doing stupid, dangerous and inappropriately sexy stuff to keep people’s attention. That it encourages narcissism is equally bad.
Teach your children that if they take a digital photo and share it with anyone, it is public – so don’t take that provocative picture, ever.
One problem many parents don’t realize is how poorly we’ve trained kids to deal with bullying, violence and criminal behavior. They think to record video of the event, and then they post the video online for strangers to view and comment on. Yet they do not tell their parents or teachers that a kid was physically assaulted. They don’t tell teachers or police about the theft they recorded. They think they should “share” it and assume those with the authority to deal with the problem will do so. Tell your kids to record potential problem situations, but then tell the relevant adults. It is insane for a thousand strangers to decry the event but no one’s parents know about it.
Anonymous Gossip Apps
There is a nasty subset of apps that many parents don’t realize are outright dangerous. These apps let someone supposedly share information and secrets anonymously. These apps are bad in every scenario.
It can result in someone sharing private information to the public that should remain private. Share too much information, and the person can be identified and then bullied for that revelation. A different problem is that they’re confessing to strangers instead of getting assistance for problems from parents, teachers and other adults who have the knowledge to guide them in making things right or solving the issue.
It is regularly used by bullies to post lies to hurt the feelings of their target. The school specific apps and school-specific groups within apps let a bully tell a lie as a “secret truth” that is now seen by many of the target’s friends and classmates. Never was it so easy to spread a malicious rumor.
Geolocation is simply the tracking of someone’s location through an app. We often turn off geolocation so we don’t get ads for every store we walk past. You may want this feature turned on so you can tell where your child is. What you don’t want is for your child to be talking to strangers on an app and get connected with a pervert who will know where they’re located and have a lead into illicit contact with them. An Arlington, Tennessee man met a girl through an app he later tracked down and raped this way, so this isn’t a theoretical concern.
Don’t forget to discuss what sexual grooming is with your children, the gradual lowering of standards and violation of boundaries. It is a deliberate tactic by those who are lying about being your child’s friend, and they’re generally lying about being your child’s age.
One serious concern is the “anonymous” messaging apps that include geolocation. Your secrets aren’t so secret if they can see who is sitting on the bench sharing the gossip, lies or embarrassing information. Tracking the “secret-teller” to their home isn’t that hard. The solution here is either removing the apps or turning off geo-location and deleting all related data. The challenge we face with apps like these are that they keep changing privacy policies and app settings, so killing tracking and saying you don’t want to be tracked today doesn’t matter after the next update of the app.
In general, avoid apps that encourage excessive sharing of “private” information, unrestricted video and images, and tell strangers where your children are. Educate your children of appropriate boundaries, since this protects them from literal threats to their safety and can protect them from sharing what can and will be used against them.
© 2018 Tamara Wilhite
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on November 13, 2018:
Thank you for a relevant and important article on a topic which we all need to be informed about.
RTalloni on November 12, 2018:
Thank you a dozen times over. The more we discuss the related issues to using online services the better off kids and everyone else will be. You cover great territory here that will hopefully be used to keep kids safer.