Are There Any Safe Apps For Kids To Use?

Parents often are worried about the apps that their kids may be using and for good reason. The problems can come about because of cyberbullying, sexting, sextortion, online porn or a handful of other problems. In an article for Pediatric Safety back in 2019, I shared ways that parents can help keep an eye on what their kids are doing online.

Those methods focused mainly when you know which apps/sites your kids may be using or wanted to know what others were saying about them online. But what happens if your child is using an app that you have expressly forbidden them from using in the first place? Do you trust that your child will resist the temptation to use those apps

Before you answer that question, answer this one: Did you always do what your parents told you to do?  This may seem like a cynical point of view, but the reality is that there are very real dangers online. We’ll get to this in a bit.

According to Shawn Henry, the Executive Assistant Director at the FBI, there are 750,000 predators online hunting our children at any given moment. This leads us to ask the question, “Are there any safe apps/sites?”

Quite frankly, the short answer is all apps have at least some risk to them, but some of them are more likely to cause problems than others. It’s not just about being able to trust your own child to do the right thing. The amount of cyberbullying, online porn and other problems seems to be growing, rather than lessening, despite promises from the platforms to do a better job at eliminating inappropriate content/users. In fact, you may be surprised to know that some of the more mainstream apps – the ones we think have the most parental controls in place – are some of the most dangerous.  Private groups in Facebook have been known to contain very controversial content and Twitter is filled with nudity and even hard-core pornography. The same is true for Instagram.  These are all very popular apps used by kids the world over.

Other apps, like Whisper, don’t even ask users to create a profile (not that they’re reliable) and there are many apps who intentionally introduce strangers to each other.

What it comes down to is that predators will hunt their prey wherever they are.  This is true for bullies, trolls, sexual predators and anyone else who is targeting someone.  Think about it this way: bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is.  Predators hunt where their prey is.

And this is not limited to just social media apps.  Back in 2018, a story broke in the news about a young girl’s avatar in Roblox being subjected to a virtual rape.  This is a game and certainly not a place where most parents would ever expect something like this to happen.  But it did.

Parents may monitor their children’s activity online as I suggested in my previous article. However, this isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem.  Some apps, in particular those your children know you don’t want them to use, may be hidden on their devices. Also, what can parents do if they aren’t even aware that their child is using an app in the first place?

First, make sure that your child understands that if a parent purchased the phone and pays the monthly service fee, the phone belongs to the adult, even though the child may use it.  My wife and I made this perfectly clear to our daughter when she received her first phone.  We also made sure that she realized that she had to hand it over if we deemed it necessary.

Checking to see if the child may be using an app that the parents don’t want them to use is not that hard to do.  That’s good, because once an app is installed onto a device, it can easily be hidden inside of a “vault” app.

Once a parent has the phone in their possession, simply go to Google Play or the Apple Store and try to download the app in question. If the site gives you the option to install the app, then the device does not already have it installed.  However, if the app site/store offers you the option to OPEN the app, then the device already has it installed, even if you can’t find it.  The downside to this approach is that you need to check each app individually, but if you search for “vault apps”, it will show you the most popular and chances are, that will limit it to no more than a handful of choices.

The same process can also be helpful for uncovering other problem apps a child might want to use that you hadn’t thought to search for. For example, when looking to see if my own phone had Tik Tok installed using this method, it recommended several other potential apps under as, “You might also like” and “Similar apps” options.

What this Means to Parents

Did you know that one of the first lessons they teach in business schools and in officers’ training in the military is to never give an order that you know can’t or won’t be followed? In today’s world, it’s unrealistic to expect that our children will not be able to go online.  I recently got into a discussion online with several parents who felt that parents just need to trust the kids to do the right thing.  I wish it were that simple, but if that were true, the number of cybersafety incidents would be nowhere near as high as they really are.

Since parents can’t be with their kids 24/7, one option is to install parental control apps onto their devices that keep track of what the kids do online.  Options vary based on many choices, including how much freedom you want to give the child.  Some can even prevent a child from installing a certain app or visiting specific websites.  Others allow just about everything, but make sure that the parents are informed of questionable behavior/choices.

Some apps are better than others at trying to keep kids safe, but even under the best of circumstances, there’s a limit to how much they can do. Common Sense Media, a great resource for parents, has put together a list of apps that they recommend for families and going over their list, I have never heard of any problems on any of these apps.

Of course, the best option is prevention.  Be sure that you speak with your child about what is acceptable and why.  Many children fail to see the long-term consequence of their actions.  Show them some great examples by looking for #OnlineMeetsOffline in a search engine or on a social media platform.  The stories will amuse and amaze you, while others may terrify you.

In the meantime, know what to look for when it comes to potential danger signs that something wrong is happening with your child online.  Not all signs are easy to spot and some of them may even be actions that would otherwise deserve a commendation, not make a parent wonder if something is wrong.

Be the ounce of prevention your child needs to make that the cure isn’t needed – ever.

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for several years. He is also an adjunct professor at Thomas Jefferson University. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that he became involved in helping others in the area. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention and is the cyberbullying advisor to Fifty Shades of Purple against Bullying. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016. Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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