Teens and social media – 10 scary apps parents need to know about

You’d have to be on another planet not to know  social media have benefits and dangers for children. The risks rise  for teenagers who spend more time in cyberspace without parental guidance. Clearly, parents need to stay vigilant no matter the age of their offspring. US child advocate and trained child forensic interviewer Ginger Kadlec has made it her life’s work to raise awareness of the worldwide epidemic of child abuse, and the role social media, and apps in particular, are playing. Her work is especially relevant in South Africa, where child sexual abuse and homicide are endemic. Here, she tells parents about 10 dodgy apps they should know about, and gives other tips to help keep their children safe.  MS

By Ginger Kadlec*

teens social mediaiPhones, iPads and other mobile devices have become “vital” appendages to most teens. It’s how they connect with one another, and the rest of the world. While there are many advantages and fun-aspects of social media, there are also some very real dangers.

Pulling back the covers, we find alarming statistics:

  • More than 104 million child pornography images have been reviewed by the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children since 2002. This number is increasing at an alarming rate due in large part to the Internet. In fact, the number of new images reviewed in 2013 was an astonishing 24 million, an increase of 30% in just one year.
  • In 82% of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s likes and dislikes (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010).
  • Ginger Kadlec
    Child advocate Ginger Kadlec

    65% of online sex offenders used the victim’s social networking site to gain home and school information about the victim (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010).

  • 70% of  children aged eight to 18 report unintentionally stumbling across pornographic images while online. The average age for a child to be exposed to online pornography is 11 .

Online threats are very real and can range from mildly age-inappropriate content to cyberbullying to sexual exploitation, assault or even death.

US child abuse investigator Detective Alex Petty specialises in child protection and abuse cases, and has seen more than his fair share of crime related to teens and social media. He says there are some scary social media sites out there.

US child abuse investigator Detective Alex Petty
US child abuse investigator Detective Alex Petty

“Parents need to be vigilant, and help their kids understand the all-too-real dangers online,” Detective Petty says.

He shares the following list of apps about which he thinks all parents should be familiar and have on their radars:

1) Ask.fm: This is a website, but can also be downloaded as an app and allows people to follow users anonymously, and ask any question they want. After reading all sorts of things about this app, I decided to download it myself, and was shocked. The second question posed to me by an anonymous user was, “What is your bra size?” I can only imagine the types of questions posed to children who actively use this app. YourSphere actually calls Ask.fm “a toxic site”. Detective Petty and I couldn’t agree more.

2) Creepy: This app extracts geolocation data and pulls together all public information about a person that is available online. It then plots that data on a map when possible, showing users that person’s whereabouts. “Creepy is a good name for this app,” says Detective Petty.

3) Kik: This app specifies it’s for people aged 17+, but younger children are actively using it. Kik is commonly used for sexting – kids often promote their Kik names on Instagram, posting “Kik me at xxxx”. BeWebSmart.com did a little research on this app and immediately found some alarming, pretty standard activity. BeWebSmart.com reminds parents: “Remember, you don’t need a phone to use iPhone apps; if your child has an iPod touch or an iPad, they can install iPhone apps.  Kik is just one of many free texting apps available in the App store.”

4) Pheed: One of the fastest growing apps, Pheed has been touted by Forbes as “the new Twitter”, Mashable as “the next social craze”, and Huffington Post as “the next generation of social media”. With 81% of its user base aged 14 to 25, Pheed is popular among teens. It offers live stream broadcast capability and, unlike Vine, doesn’t set a time limit for video or audio streaming.

5) Snapchat: It is widely known as “the sexting app”, and young people often think photos they share immediately disappear – not true. Screenshots can be saved then distributed to others. I am a volunteer instructor for a body safety class that is taught in (US) elementary schools in my area where Snapchat comes up. Even children in 2nd grade (ie seven to nine year olds) know about Snapchat, either from older siblings, friends or from using the app themselves.

6) Qooh.me: Similar to Ask.fm, Qooh.me allows users to post anonymous questions – things I’ve read about this app is that the anonymous questions posed are often mean spirited or totally inappropriate, even though the Qooh.me terms and conditions state: “You may not use Qooh.me to abuse, bully, harass, threaten, malign, slander, impersonate or intimidate anyone.” There are no privacy setting options. Given the online feedback and Detective Petty’s experience with this app, watch out for this one, parents!

7) Vine: This six-second video production app is used by many for legitimate purposes, but it also has a dark side. When it was initially launched, Vine was heavily used to distribute pornography. Vine attempted to remove as much porn as they could, but to get around that and continue porn posts, users simply changed the hashtags they were using. Terms of service have not changed since 2013, so sexual content and nudity are still permitted.

Here are three more apps to add to Detective Petty’s primary list:

8 & 9) Whisper and Post Secret: both of these apps allow for anonymous posts of “secrets”. If secrets are linked to a child (accurately or inaccurately), they can lead to cyberbullying or worse.

10) Girls Around Me: a super creepy, sometimes referred to as a “stalking”, app, Girls Around Me uses geolocation technology that connects to other apps (such as Four Square or Facebook) to identify the location of females (or males – user can specify) in the user’s immediate area. Over a quarter of online sexual offenders used their victims’ social media sites to identify their physical locations.

Parents can also limit the types of apps their teens download to digital devices via parental control functions on iPhone or iPads. Various apps are assigned ratings (source: iTunes):

    • 4+: Applications in this category contain no objectionable material.
    • 9+: Applications in this category may contain mild or infrequent occurrences of cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence, and infrequent or mild mature, suggestive, or horror-themed content which may not be suitable for children under the age of 9.
    • 12+: Applications in this category may also contain infrequent mild language, frequent or intense cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence, and mild or infrequent mature or suggestive themes, and simulated gambling which may not be suitable for children under the age of 12.
    • 17+: You must be at least 17 years old to purchase this application. Applications in this category may also contain frequent and intense offensive language; frequent and intense cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence; and frequent and intense mature, horror, and suggestive themes; plus sexual content, nudity, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs which may not be suitable for children under the age of 17.

BeWebSmart.com offers a simple step-by-step guide to restrict application downloads by rating. These steps should work for Apple products including iPhones and iPads. For parental controls on other types of digital devices, please refer to the manufacturers’ websites for details and instructions.  

The bottom line: There are steps parents can take to help protect their children online.

“It may seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be,” says Detective Petty.  “Just actively check the phones, mobile devices and computers your kids use.”

He advises parents to talk with their children about social media safety, both while they are at home, as well as when they are at friends’ homes, school or other places where they have access to the Internet.

*Ginger Kadlec was an executive in the technology sector for 20 years, and is now a child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, who makes it her mission to  raise awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse. This blog first appeared on her website,  BeAKidsHero.com. Contact her on the website,  or on Facebook.

  • Want more detail on these apps? Click here for your free copy of the 10 Scary Apps Special Report 4Parents.      

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