What apps are safe for my child? My kids friends are all playing on such and such, should I let my child? I’ve heard bad things about it?
These are common questions I hear all the time from concerned parents trying to weave their way through the myriad of noise about online safety. They are certainly relevant questions. We need to find out what we can to determine whether something is suitable and safe for our kids.
So what is my answer? Which apps are safe for our kids?
Well, almost all of them can be safe and almost all of them can be unsafe.
I have heard parents say to me that an expert or a mum from school told them an app wasn’t safe, so they banned it from their child’s device and ‘Voila!, my child is now safe”.
Well yes, they may well no longer be interacting on that particular app whilst the device is in your immediate vicinity, but they could well be posting some pretty horrendous comments, some dodgy photos and answering some near on pornographic questions on another app you haven’t been warned about yet. Maybe not. Maybe they are compliant enough to play on only those apps that you have permitted. Maybe for now they have a good understanding that you are paying for the device, the phone or the wifi so they need to tow the line in order to enjoy the privileges. For now at least. That is, before they head off on public transport with internet enabled device in their back pocket or schoolbag.
I know of some kids that can safely navigate all manner of apps, have positive connections with friends and peers and have a healthy dose of control over the time they spend online. I also know kids that need strict time limits, who struggle to get outside and play and whose very sense of self worth is reliant on the amount of likes and followers they receive on social networks. I know children who get a lot of support, encouragement and a sense of belonging from the connections they have online. I also know of a lot of children using apps that are completely inappropriate for their level of development, their understanding of human behaviours and consequences and their levels of critical thinking. I know young people that use Instagram really well. I know others that do not. I know young people that have got in to enormous amounts of trouble on Kik. I know others that have not. We see kids using Snapchat as a way to share real time photos and videos with grandparents and relatives afar. We know young people are sending inappropriate photos via the same app, secure in the deluded notion these photos will be deleted. We know kids who have had experiences that coupled with mental health issues have led to suicide, blamed on apps such as Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Ask.Fm and far too many others. I also know many kids that have sufficient self esteem and resilience to ‘click away’ when they need to and to confidently avoid ‘the drama’.
The point that needs to be made is this……
There is no one setting, restriction or age limit that makes an app completely safe.
What makes an app ‘safe’ is the manner in which a child uses that app. Now of course an appropriate level of common sense must be read into this.
Certainly I can think of many apps I would prefer my kids never go near. Apps that ask for anonymous questions and comments, apps that hook people up with others close by, apps that encourage video messaging of their inner most secrets and confessions. I discuss these apps with my kids and we talk about the lack of positive connection and interaction as well as the threats to their physical and emotional wellbeing. These are apps that I may well have the control to have them avoid right now, but I am well aware this may diminish over time. I know kids have a natural curiosity and a tendency to follow their friends and peers. So when they do find themselves in places or circumstances that are unsavoury or threatening, then I hope that I will have put in enough hard work teaching them the critical thinking skills and the behaviours to be safe wherever they find themselves online.
Some things we need to remember:
Age alone is not a determinant. Some younger kids have far greater maturity and development than those older kids who are of the recommended age. There are many factors you need to consider.
Kids will generally want to hangout with their mates and this doesn’t change online. If your kids friends are using an app, there is a good chance your child is too.
Keep up to date with the apps not merely to know which ones to ban, but so you gain knowledge about the sorts of things kids are doing. It also helps you gain perspective when helping to guide your kids and helps you stay relevant to their world (Use sites such as Common Sense Media to get up to date information, descriptions and ratings).
Don’t rely on banning. We can certainly put bans and restrictions on them when they are young and it is important we set up devices and sites with safe settings. As they get older however, attempting to ban apps will not only be nigh on impossible to enforce, but will only lead them to seek out another app you probably don’t know exists.
Communication is the key and it must be ongoing. The technology will continually change, the apps will continually change and so, of course, will your kids. Keep talking to them about life online, always look for teachable moments and let them know you understand the challenges they face.
Be prepared for mistakes. Kids will no doubt get it wrong sometimes. Taking away the technology when they do something wrong is not going to be your answer every time. We want the mistakes they make to be small ones that they are able to learn from, not big ones that drastically effect their lives. Monitoring your kids early allows you to see their mistakes and help them to do it better next time.
It is your family and they are your children. Make decisions about technology just as you would any other parenting decision. Get the facts, know your child, communicate constantly and decide how you are going to best enforce your own rules and boundaries.
So keep asking questions, keep talking to others, keep communicating with your kids and keep making the decisions for your family based on knoweldge, understanding, perspective and a heavy dose of realism.