As a Millennial, I’ve grown up with technology by my side. Yes, I still remember dial-up. Yes, I used to have an AIM account. Yes, I remember the days that MySpace and Yahoo were popular. But even with all of the technology I did have, there was a lot I didn’t have. I didn’t get my first laptop until I went to college, and I wasn’t even allowed to get a cell phone until I could fork out the money at 17 and pay my own bill.
But times have changed. Now, kids are clutching their smartphones practically out of the womb. And we’re trying to keep up with all the changes. (And, yes, most Millennials are bested by Gen Z when it comes to innate tech familiarity). But let’s not get overwhelmed by all the new. Although there will always be more to learn about the ever-expanding world-wide web, we have to start somewhere.
So let’s start with apps for smartphones, and some of the most popular ones kids are into today.
What Is an App?
Well, “app” is actually short for “application.” When software applications found their way to mobile devices, the name was shortened. And, really, it’s just software that’s written and customized for your phone, tablet and other electronic devices. I like to think of an app as a mini-version of something bigger—just as Facebook has a web page, it also has a “mini” version of its site, or an app, that you can download to your electronic device.
How Do I Get an App?
Some apps, on both Android and iOS devices, come pre-installed. But you can still download other apps in addition to the preexisting ones. For iPhones, you can find any app you’d like in the App Store. Once you open up the App Store, go to the search bar and type in the name of the app you’d like. The app will pop up and you can click “get” (which indicates that the app is free), or the app will have a price that you must click to buy and then download.
For Android devices, users tap the Google Play Store app. Once opened, you can search and browse for content to download. Just like the apps on the iPhone, there are some for Android that are free and others that you must purchase.
How Many Apps Are There?
The sheer volume of apps out there can be overwhelming. It’s estimated that there are more than 2 billion apps available for download on Android devices, and on iOS devices there are nearly the same amount. That’s A LOT. A lot of information. A lot of unknowns. There’s no way we could take the time to talk about all the apps, but we can talk about some. Let’s start with a few of the most popular social media apps.
A Google-owned video-sharing website with a corresponding app for smartphones
Pros: YouTube can be an amazing platform for kids to learn and get creative. There are myriad videos dedicated to helping children understand complex issues in school as well as exploring their own creative interests. Many of these videos are clean, wholesome and engaging for kids of all ages. And if you want to set some boundaries for your children, YouTube also allows parents to place a few restrictions on what their kids watch. In addition, YouTube has created a place for children to admire those who are just like them, instead of only idolizing celebrities.
Cons: While kids might follow people that are “just like them,” that doesn’t mean they share the same worldview or beliefs as your family. YouTube is also filled with inappropriate content ranging from vulgar language and violence to drug use and sexually charged activity. It is one of the most free-range sites in that your children can watch pretty much anything they want, if left unsupervised. And though YouTube technically has content standards regarding explicit imagery, it doesn’t take long on the site to realize that those standards aren’t applied consistently. (Especially when it comes to racy, money-making videos by popular musicians.) And the comments section on YouTube can be just as sticky, as users are able to leave hurtful, hateful posts.
Trend: YouTube isn’t just a place where kids passively consume information, at least, not anymore. Young users are now creating YouTube Channels where they’re able to post videos that interest them, in the hopes of gaining an audience. If parents want to disable the comments section on their child’s channel, they can learn to do so here.
A Facebook-owned video and photo sharing app.
Pros: Users can privately message friends as well as edit, post and share videos and photos on their personal feed. They also have access to Instagram Stories, where they can post pictures and videos for 24 hours. Users can customize their privacy settings and control who sees their content. Users can utilize hashtags (to personalize) and geotags (to show location) when posting content.
Cons: Just as privately messaging friends can be good, it can also be harmful. Friends of users are able to screenshot their content (without notification) and share it privately with others, even if the other users are not friends of your child. Additionally, users can utilize the search engine and see a variety of clips, videos and photos from other accounts, some of which contain vulgar language, inappropriate material and pornographic images.
Trend: A trend that many professionals and adults are seeing with Instagram is an increase in depression and anxiety. Instagram allows users to post their “best life,” and oftentimes the “best” version is an unrealistic picture that distorts reality. Additionally, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is another contributor to increased anxiety levels among teens.
A privately owned, multi-media messaging app
Pros: Snapchat has a variety of filters that allows users to get creative with their pictures. Because there’s no “Like” button, as with Instagram, teens often feel less pressure to portray a perfect or perfectly filtered life on Snapchat.
Cons: Teens are able to post Stories (videos and photos) that last only 24 hours. This can eliminate accountability, allowing teens to post whatever they choose for a short window of time. Unless, of course, a fellow follower chooses to save an image to his or her personal device before it disappears. Similarly, teens are also able to send direct message words and images which last anywhere from one to 10 seconds, depending on a user’s settings, and then they disappear—a feature that’s garnered plenty of publicity for tempting teens to post stuff that they might not have otherwise. Perhaps the most disturbing content on Snapchat is the ability to “Discover” any content you want, from pornographic images and videos to vulgar language and violence.
Trend: A snap streak is when users send messages back and forth with a friend for consecutive days.
TiKTok (formerly known as Musical.ly)
A social media platform where users can discover, create and share short videos.
Pros: Users are able to post 15-second recorded videos of themselves (often singing or dancing). Many kids use this app as a way to post goofy videos of songs they enjoy and share them with friends. Although the app is set to public by default, there are privacy settings that parents can put into place.
Cons: On iTunes, this app is marketed for ages 12 and up. In reality, this is an app that can be accessed by children of all ages as it’s fairly simple to create an account. Users are able to post any sort of 15-second video they want—thus many videos might include borderline pornographic images as well as pics of young girls and boys dancing suggestively and dressing provocatively. Users are also able to post private contact information (and provocative messages/images) in their profile. In addition, an account is public by default, and parents should be aware that other users can see videos whether they have an account or not.
Trend: This app has been identified a hotspot for predators because anyone can direct message your child, asking for inappropriate content and sending inappropriate content as well.
LiveMe (formerly known as Live.ly)
A live-streaming video app attached to TiKTok, where users can broadcast what they’re doing at any moment.
Cons: This app is suggested for users 17 and up. In short, it is not meant for children. As with TiKTok, users are able to view inappropriate content which can contain graphic nudity, vulgar language and other inappropriate content. Perhaps the most dangerous feature, however, is that a location is attached to the broadcast. In addition, users are unable to control who views their broadcasts and, their information can be easily shared with strangers.
A Facebook-owned, cross-platform messaging and voice service.
Pros: Users can text, send audio and video messages, as well as making calls for free and with no ads. Teens can only send and receive messages from those on their contact list. It’s a great tool when communicating with people overseas or for those without substantial data plans. All messages are completely encrypted, and users can block those with whom they don’t want to communicate. WhatsApp also has “Stories” (just like Instagram and Snapchat) and the ability to share pictures and videos.
Cons: Users can send audio messages, texts, images and videos to anyone in their user list. This means that it can provide easy access to sexting (sending sexually explicit messages and/or images) and sharing inappropriate content, as there is no limit placed on mature, adult content. WhatsApp can also (like many other apps) be a place where children are inadvertently preyed upon. It’s important for parents to have teens turn off their “location” feature, which enables a photo can give away a child’s exact location.
A privately owned instant-messaging mobile app
Pros: Kik is an alternative to texting, as the app uses usernames (instead of phone numbers) and WiFi to send texts, videos, audio messages and photos.
Cons: Kik might be a good alternative for texting if your child doesn’t have data, but it presents its own dangers with regard to predators and strangers potentially lurking around the app. This app has become wildly popular for its anonymity, has been directly correlated to sexting and is password protected. Because users don’t need phone numbers, teens can chat with those outside of their circle of friends, leaving them vulnerable to vulgar, pornographic material and predatory behavior.
Trend: Hidden Apps
Just because you asked your teen to delete an app, it doesn’t mean they did. It’s increasingly easy for teens to hide information they don’t want their parents viewing via hidden apps. These apps are designed to hide information (such as photos, videos and messages), and they’re known as “vault” and “secret” apps. These apps are either disguised as a common app (like a calculator) or are password protected.
In iOS devices, kids can create an innocuous folder where they can choose to place secretive information, or they can configure their settings to keep apps from showing up on the screen. And on Android devices, users can hide their information by renaming a folder to include a period in the front of the folder’s name.
Let’s take a deep breath. That was a lot. And that’s only a small amount of what lies at your children’s fingertips—it’s enough to keep any parent up at night. But you’re not alone. It’s true, you are your child’s best protector and advocate, but we want to help you navigate the murky waters of the internet. To start, below you’ll find our latest app reviews and walkthroughs for parents.
There are myriad opinions about whether Facebook’s Messenger Kids app is its attempt to target younger children or if it’s simply the company’s response to research that shows these kids are already on smart devices, apps and web sites that are less secure.
Either way, in a time when we already have so many questions about the mental health and safety of older children online, there is bound to be a lot of controversy over allowing young children to have any form of access. As a father of four children and a social media professional by trade, I live with this tension every day, and it’s still a tricky thing to navigate. So I can definitely empathize.
The facts are these: Surveys show that more than 90% of children ages 6 to 12 have access to smart devices such as tablets and phones. Two-thirds of those are already proud owners of one or more smart devices of their own. Access to smart devices and social media platforms and apps is already, in many families, a reality.
In light of that, we explored the new Messenger Kids app from Facebook so that we could show you exactly how it works. If you want to save the visual demonstration of the app and its features for later and just get some of your big questions answered now, we dug into several of the biggest question marks and potential red flags regarding the Messenger Kids app over on the Plugged In blog.