Being a tech savvy parent is the first key to learning about social apps and sites your teens use. The more you know, the more you can help your children. Researching the Web and communicating with your teens are the next steps.
Third and most importantly, concentrate on keeping the lines of communication open with your teens and let them know they can come to you should a problem arise. Make sure they know it's OK to make mistakes and that they don't need to hide these from you because you can help them through tough spots.
Learn what each app is for and how it works. Have your kid use your app store account or an account linked to your email, so you'll be notified when an app is downloaded. Ask your teens which apps and sites are popular with their friends. They are more apt to open up more when talking about someone else.
Kik Messenger is an app that allows kids text for free. It's fast and has no message limits, character limits, or fees if you only use the basic features. Because it's an app, the texts won't show up on your kid's phone's messaging service, and you're not charged for them (beyond standard data rates).
· Loaded with ads and in-app-purchases. Kik specializes in "promoted chats" -- basically, conversations between brands and users. It also offers specially designed apps (accessible only through the main app), many of which offer products for sale.
- Some stranger danger. An app named OinkText, linked to Kik, allows communication with strangers who share their Kik usernames to find people to chat with. There's also a Kik community blog where users can submit photos of themselves and screenshots of messages (sometimes displaying users' full names) to contests.
ooVoo is a free video, voice, and messaging app. Users can have group chats with up to 12 people for free -- and it's common for kids to log on after school and keep it open while doing homework.
- Can only chat with approved friends. Users can only communicate with those on their approved contact lists, which can help ease parents' safety concerns.
- Can be distracting. Because the service makes video chatting so affordable and accessible, it also can be addicting.
WhatsApp lets users send text messages, audio messages, videos, and photos to one or many people with no message limits or fees.
- For users 16 and over. Lots of younger teens seem to be using the app, but this age minimum has been set by WhatsApp.
- After you sign up, it automatically connects you to all the people in your address book who also are using WhatsApp. It also encourages you to add friends who haven't signed up yet.
MICRO-BLOGGING APPS AND SITES
Instagram lets users snap, edit, and share photos and 15-second videos, either publicly or with a private network of followers. It unites the most popular features of social media sites: sharing, seeing, and commenting on photos. It also lets you apply fun filters and effects to your photos, making them look high quality and artistic.
- Teens want "likes." Similar to the way they use Facebook, teens measure the "success" of their photos -- even their self-worth -- by the number of likes or comments they receive.
- Public photos are the default. Photos and videos shared on Instagram are public unless privacy settings are adjusted. Hashtags and location information can make photos even more visible to communities beyond a teen's followers if his or her account is public.
- Private messaging is now an option. Instagram Direct allows users to send "private messages" to up to 15 mutual friends. These pictures don't show up on their public feeds. Although there's nothing wrong with group chats, kids may be more likely to share inappropriate stuff with their inner circles.
Tumblr is a cross between a blog and Twitter: It's a streaming scrapbook of text, photos, and/or videos and audio clips. Users create and follow short blogs, or "tumblelogs," that can be seen by anyone online (if made public). Many teens have tumblelogs for personal use: sharing photos, videos, musings, and things they find funny with their friends.
- Porn is easy to find. This online hangout is hip and creative but sometimes raunchy. Pornographic images and videos and depictions of violence, self-harm, drug use, and offensive language are easily searchable.
- Privacy can be guarded but only through an awkward workaround. The first profile a member creates is public and viewable by anyone on the Internet. Members who desire full privacy have to create a second profile, which they're able to password-protect.
- Posts are often copied and shared. Reblogging on Tumblr is similar to re-tweeting: A post is reblogged from one tumblelog to another. Many teens want their posts reblogged. Do you really want your kids' words and photos on someone else's page? There is always a danger that unknown content could be added to the reblog and making it appear that your teen wrote it.
Twitter is a microblogging site that allows users to post brief, 140-character messages -- called "tweets" -- and follow other users' activities. It's not only for adults; teens like using it to share tidbits and keep up with news and celebrities.
- Public tweets are the norm for teens. Though you can choose to keep your tweets private, most teens report having public accounts. Talk to your kids about what they post and how a post can spread far and fast.
- Updates appear immediately. Even though you can remove tweets, your followers can still read what you wrote until it's gone. This can get kids in trouble if they say something in anger.
Vine is a social media app that lets users post and watch looping six-second video clips. This Twitter-owned service has developed a community of people who post videos that are often creative, funny, and sometimes thought-provoking. Teens use Vine to create and share silly videos of themselves and/or their friends and families.
- Full of inappropriate videos. Searches have shown a clip full of full-frontal male nudity, a woman in a fishnet shirt with her breasts exposed, and people blowing marijuana smoke into each other's mouths.
- Significant privacy concerns. The videos you post, the accounts you follow, and the comments you make on videos all are public by default. However you can adjust your settings to protect your posts; only followers will see them, and you have to approve new followers.
Burn Note is a messaging app that erases messages after a set period of time. Unlike many other apps like this, it limits itself to text messages; users cannot send pictures or video. While reducing sexting issues, it can result in hurtful messages.
- Allows kids to communicate covertly. To discourage copying and taking screenshots, a spotlight-like system that recipients direct with a finger (or the mouse) reveals just a portion of the message at a time.
- May encourage risky sharing. The company claims that its "Multi-Device Deletion" system can delete a message from anywhere: the device it was sent from, the device it was sent to, and its own servers. Parents should be skeptical of this claim.
- No need to have the app to receive a Burn Note. Unlike other apps such as Snapchat, users can send a Burn Note to anyone.
Snapchat is a messaging app that lets users put a time limit on the pictures and videos they send before they disappear. Most teens use the app to share goofy or embarrassing photos without the risk of them going public.
- Can make sexting seem OK. The seemingly risk-free messaging might encourage users to share pictures containing sexy images which is against the law.
Whisper is a social "confessional" app that allows users to post whatever's on their minds, paired with an image. With teens being so emotional and full of drama, anonymous outlets give them the freedom to share their feelings without fear of judgment.
- Whispers are often sexual in nature. Some users use the app to try to hook up with people, while others post "confessions" of desire. Lots of eye-catching nearly nude pics accompany these shared secrets.
- Content can be dark. Whisper topics include insecurity, depression, substance abuse, and various lies told to employers and teachers.
- Although it's anonymous to start, it may not stay that way. The app encourages users to exchange personal information in the "Meet Up" section.
Yik Yak is a free social-networking app that lets users post brief, Twitter-like comments to the 500 geographically nearest Yik Yak users. Kids can find out opinions, secrets, rumors, and more.
- Reveals your location. By default, your exact location is shown unless you toggle location-sharing off. Each time you open the app, GPS updates your location.
- A mixed bag of trouble. This app has it all: cyberbullying, explicit sexual content, unintended location-sharing, and exposure to explicit information about drugs and alcohol.
- Some schools have banned access. Some teens have used the app to threaten others, causing school lockdowns and more. It’s gossipy and sometimes cruel nature can be toxic to a high school environment, prompting some school administrators to crack down.
CHATTING, MEETING, DATING APPS AND SITES
MeetMe Although not marketed as a dating app it promotes chatting with and meeting new people. MeetMe does have a "Match" feature whereby users can "secretly admire" others, and its large user base means fast-paced communication and guaranteed attention.
- It's an open network. Users can chat with anyone who’s online, as well as search locally, opening the door for potential trouble.
- Personal details are required. First and last name, age, and ZIP code are requested at registration, or you can log in using a Facebook account. The app also asks permission to use location services on your teens' mobile devices, meaning they can find the closest matches wherever they go.
Omegle is a chat site (and app) that puts two strangers together in their choice of a text chat or video chat room. Being anonymous can be very attractive to teens, and Omegle provides an easy way to make connections. Its "interest boxes" also let users filter potential chat partners by shared interests.
- Users get paired up with strangers. No registration is required.
- This is NOT an app for kids and teens. Omegle is filled with people searching for sexual chat. Some prefer to do so live. Others offer links to porn sites.
- Language is a big issue. Since the chats are anonymous, they're often much more explicit than those with an identifiable user might be.
Skout is a flirting app that allows users to sign up as teens or adults. They're then placed in the appropriate peer group, where they can post to a feed, comment on others' posts, add pictures, and chat. They'll get notifications when other users near their geographic area join, and they can search other areas by redeeming points. They receive notifications when someone "checks" them out but must pay points to see who it is.
- Okay for teens IF used appropriately. If your teens are using it as a dating app, Skout is probably the safest choice, because it has a teens-only section that seems to be moderated reasonably well.
- No age verification. This makes it easy for a teen to say she's older than 18 and an adult to say she's younger.
Tinder is a photo and messaging dating app for browsing pictures of potential matches within a certain-mile radius of the user's location. It's very popular with 20-somethings as a way to meet new people for casual or long-term relationships.
- It's all about swipes. You swipe right to "like" a photo or left to "pass." If a person whose photo you "liked" swipes "like" on your photo, the app allows you to message each other. Meeting up and possibly hooking up is pretty much the goal.
- Location-based. Geolocation means it's possible for teens to meet up with nearby people, which can be very dangerous.
Your teens are using these tools. If taught how to use them respectfully, appropriately, and with parental guidance, they should be fine. Take inventory of your kids' apps and review the best practices. New apps are popping up every day so be sure to check for new apps on a regular basis.
A savvy parent is a parent armed with knowledge on keeping kids digitally safe and responsible!
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Ross Ellis is also the Examiner for:
National Parenting Examiner