Last month, a Special Agent from the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Unit presented at our son’s middle school about the “use, misuse, and consequences” of online sources available to our kids. Since I also have two college students, our family has already traveled this bumpy technology road, but with its rapidly changing landscape, I am always willing to learn the latest. While it’s true that keeping our children from internet dangers for as long as possible is ideal, it’s also true that this is their world — it’s not going away — and we must learn to help them navigate it.
Attending the presentation, I was hoping to gather a notebook full of ways to monitor my child’s online behavior but, instead, I got a large dose of what others are doing online in hopes of snaring our kids. Sickening. Here’s my takeaway.
Apps, Apps, and more Apps – The first slide was a list of 11 apps middle schoolers should NOT have on their phones. It included Instagram and Snapchat — probably the two most prevalent apps for middle school social media, so I’m immediately thinking — get real! This was followed by another slide of 11 more apps, followed by another slide of 11 more apps. My mind then wandered to the hundreds of apps being created while I was sitting through the two-hour presentation. Overwhelming.
Here’s a few, though, that do stand out as particularly sketchy and sparked a conversation between me and my middle schooler:
Kik Messenger (or Kik for short) – A free app allowing users to text each other and group chat. Kik, however, has an unusual level of anonymity attached to it, making it easy for strangers to contact kids. Since there are other free apps that do the same thing, it seems an unnecessary risk.
ChatRoulette – Just the word ‘Roulette’ raises my eyebrows. And yes, get on the app, and you are randomly connected to strangers around the world.
YikYak – While the creators of this app have removed its anonymity feature, it still connects users based on location, which may be enticing to online predators.
Calculator Apps – Smart phones come with a standard calculator on them, so if you see a second one on your teen’s phone, it’s a red flag. Calculator apps can be used to hide pictures users don’t want anyone to see. The “calculator” opens once the user types in the secret numeric passcode or equation.
Sexting – Sexting, or sending nude photos/sexually suggestive messages on mobile phones, is surprisingly common among teens. What’s not commonly known, however, is the consequences for sexting can be severe. In Michigan, the laws governing sexting fall under child sexually abusive material law. Teens who innocently receive a sext message and keep it on their phone or naively pass it along can be criminally charged.
Video Gaming – Many teens, especially boys, play Xbox or PlayStation with anonymous people online, including adults. The Homeland Security Agent assured this practice was generally ok, but if the user on the other end wants to take the conversation ‘offline’ or move to another mode of connection, like SnapChat, kids should end the game.
We all know that limiting our teen’s phone time, removing screens from their room at night, as well as consistent monitoring, are good ways to stay on top of online behavior. Nothing, however, beats open communication with our kids about the pros and cons of the wide world of the internet.