With the widespread use of smartphones among teens and preteens, the district is finding a number of apps that are a distraction in the classroom and are being used for cyberbullying, sexting, and accessing pornography.
Certainly not all popular apps are harmful or dangerous. Many can be used for wholesome purposes, even helping to enhance student learning and engagement. However, it’s important for parents to know how students and their peers use the apps on their devices.
We strongly recommend that all parents be proactive in monitoring smartphone use. New apps with questionable content or features are being developed all the time. Becoming familiar with the types of apps that are on you child’s device can help build trust and keep unwanted content out of their hands.
Examples: Kik Messenger, Viber, Telegram, Jott, WhatsApp
There are several apps that act as free alternatives to text messages sent over regular phone and data plans. These apps are typically seen on iPods and tablets, but are also common on smartphones.
Messaging apps are popular because they don’t count toward regular text messages on phone plans. They often have features that young people prefer to use, making them an attractive alternative to default text-messaging apps.
A few of these messaging platforms are popular networks for sexting because users feel a greater sense of privacy than typical phone text messaging services. Kids don’t have to give their phone number, just a user name or social media account.
Apps like Kik Messenger have built-in web browsers, native apps, mobile games, music, and content feeds from sites like Reddit. These additional features make it a hot spot for online teens.
You can also find and chat with total strangers on Kik. Some of the most popular internal apps on Kik match people up with strangers for conversations. On these platforms, you don’t need to provide your phone number or use your real name.
Apps for Hiding Things
Examples: Secret, Poof, Calculator%, Vaulty
Many applications exist for the sole purpose of hiding things from plain view. In many cases these apps allow users to hide photos, messages, and even other apps. Some of these apps have deceptive names or icons (Calculator% appears like a calculator).
Other apps, like Secret, have social functionality, allowing interaction between users. The platform is completely anonymous, which lets users post whatever they want (bullying messages, confessions, threats, sexually charged messages, etc.) without having to disclose their identity.
Examples: Twitter, Tumblr, Omegle, AfterSchool, Whisper
Social media and other interactive applications are commonplace among most smartphone users. However, many of these networks contain adult material not far removed from popular content. Although some networks employ filters to block explicit content, they often do not block material that is ‘almost but not quite’ explicit. Additionally, many of these apps have their own Web browser, allowing users to bypass parental controls and filters.
Other apps are notorious for cyberbullying, and many allow private messaging and photo sharing between strangers.
Apps for posting and sharing photos and videos have always been popular among teens and preteens. Many of these apps do not have content filters, and privacy settings are sometimes nonexistent. Live-streaming apps are also popular among teens. These platforms allow users to connect via live video feed. Over-sharing and chatting with strangers are common issues.
Examples: Grouper, Tinder, Skout, Hinge, Bumble
Dating apps typically allow users to create profiles – complete with personal information and photos – and browse other user profiles. It is possible for users to create anonymous or misleading profiles. Private messaging features allow users to arrange to meet in person, and some applications are specifically designed to match users for casual sexual encounters.
Jailbreaking and Rooting
‘Jailbreaking’ an iPhone or ‘Rooting’ an Android phone are terms for hacking one’s own device to attain privileged control. Jailbreaking devices running the Apple iOS operating system lets users modify the operating system and install non-officially approved apps (sideloading). The Cydia app allows users to install software unavailable on the App Store, such as apps that have the ability to hide other questionable applications. Rooting Android phones allows users to overcome limitations that carriers and hardware manufacturers place on devices. Instructions for rooting and jailbreaking are widely available online.
Consider the following strategies to help you be familiar with your child’s online activity:
- Surf the Internet with your children and let them show you what they like to do online.
- Monitor privacy and parental settings. Review messages and apps regularly.
- Know your child’s logins (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and online friends. Don’t follow them … be them!
- Set restrictions for deleting messages and installing/deleting apps. Parental passcodes can be set on most phones, allowing parents to control when a child installs or deletes applications.
- Encourage your children to think before they post: What would family, a prospective employer or college recruiter think of it? Keep in mind most employers search job candidates online. Encourage kids to think critically about online behavior.
- Inform your child that what they post is public and permanent; even content that has seemingly been deleted.
- Talk with your children about the risks of communicating online with people they don’t know.
- Encourage youth not to respond to cyberbullying, threats or other aggressive online behavior. Encourage them to tell an adult if they encounter online aggression, and block individuals if necessary.
- Know who is connecting with your child on the Internet and set rules for social media, messaging, emailing, and online gaming.
- Install web filters and set privacy controls on devices. However, understand that filters and controls only go so far in blocking unwanted content. Open, honest communication is the best tool to keep kids safe.
“Why don’t you trust me?”
Being vigilant about your child’s online activity may lead to questions about trust. Remember that constant communication with your child is the best strategy to thwart unwanted content and inappropriate contact with strangers. Keep in mind the following:
Smartphone and Internet safety is not a matter of trust. Too many kids have become victims of cyberbullying or sexual predation as result of making choices online that seem innocent. Explain to your child that your responsibility is to protect them and keep unwanted material out of their hands.
Remember that your child’s smartphone is, by law, your property. Even if they purchased it with money earned on their own, you are the one who ultimately determines what’s on the device.
In all cases, talk openly with your child about your concerns and come up with solutions together.