It's nearly impossible to keep track of all the apps that kids are using. Every single time that parents think that they’ve finally gotten the hang of the latest app, something new captures their kids’ attention. It makes the job of keeping children safe online that much more difficult. How can we keep our children safe if we don’t even know where we should be focusing our attention!?
We all know the basic apps. There is always Facebook, but let's be honest - kids don’t think Facebook is cool anymore. To them, it's where us parents go to share “boring” family pictures. Then there is twitter, but the kids aren’t really using twitter either. For a while, everyone thought that the kids were leaving Facebook and twitter and switching to Instagram - but that doesn’t seem to be true either.
So which apps are kids using? The research shows that kids are actually leaving what we tend to consider “social media.” They are leaving the online public sphere and moving to more private forms of communication. They are leaving places like Facebook - places for sanitized, generic updates and switching to apps like Snapchat and Facebook messenger that allow them to share goofy and personal messages with only the people that they choose.
The one-to-one communication in messaging apps made it even harder for parents. Now we can’t see our children’s updates, and we have no way of knowing who our children are speaking to. But, the real challenge is the rise of anonymous chat apps. And the anonymity has made bullying even easier and more seductive for kids.
There is a wide variety of anonymous chat apps. There is Whisper, Secret, Yik Yak, Ask.fm, Saraha, and a whole bunch of others. But perhaps the biggest anonymous chat app is Kik - and it’s still pretty much unknown to any of us above the age of 20.
What is Kik?
Kik, at it surface is just another anonymous chat app. Users sign up with their name and email and begin to send messages to other users.
But Kik also has many built in apps that expand its functionality. You can play games, make memes, listen to music, watch videos, and browse the web - all within Kik. Once you’re inside the app, there is very little reason to leave.
And the app is wildly popular, especially in the US. The company claims that 40% of American teenagers are Kik users. The app is even designed with teens in mind, with the CEO saying “youth are our primary focus.”
Is it dangerous?
Kik allows anyone to sign up with just a name and an email address (which can be fake). Users don’t need to connect the app to a phone number and are only identified by their username. Privacy and anonymity is a big part of the app’s appeal.
And the anonymity has led to a rash of local news stories of cyberbullying, sexual predators preying on children, and even a murder that made the national news.
Law enforcement agents say that they tend to see kik come up repeatedly in “sextortion” cases, where a sexual predator attempts to convince a minor to share sexual images with them and then use the images as blackmail if the minor doesn’t send more images.
And unlike some competing apps, Kik doesn’t have the ability to see the content of exchanged messages, and can’t show them to police. This makes it tough for law enforcement to stop crime that originates on Kik.
What should parents do?
Anonymity might be an important part of free speech but it can cause problems for children. Kik isn’t an app designed to enable bad behavior, but the combination of anonymity and the ease of interacting with strangers can create an environment that is tough for children. Just like with all anonymous messaging apps, parents need to be concerned about Kik - but shouldn’t be terrified.
Treating online behaviors the same as offline behavior can help parents feel empowered. That means being actively involved and being familiar with the apps kids are using - without declaring them off-limits.
According to Sameer Hinduja, criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, "Kids don't want to hear us preach and lecture about all of (technology's) evils. They will immediately tune out."
A better approach is for parents is to communicate openly and often with their children about their online use. It’s no different than asking your child how their day at school was or asking about their playdates with their friends. "Constantly having these conversations with kids so that they know their parent is not oblivious to these issues goes such a long way," Hinduja said.
It’s also important for parents to do research and be familiar with the apps children are using. It takes just a few minutes to download an app and to learn how it works. Many apps also have resources for parents - like Kik’s safety center for parents.
At the end, it comes down to two things - education and information. We need to have as much information as possible to educate, inform, and ultimately protect our children from the dangers they face online.