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Mobile Applications: Five Questions Parents Can Ask To Keep Kids Safe!

This post was written by RCMP civilian member Jean Turner and Constable Aaron Sheedy – Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “O” Division (Ontario). It is posted with permission from RCMP Ontario.

New technologies in the form of mobile applications (Apps) can be a fun way to stay in touch with friends or meet new ones, but it is important to recognize that some Apps may not be suitable for children.  Parents should know that the clever and fun features of many Apps also have the potential to be used by adult offenders to take advantage of our young people.  As with any new technology; having a conversation with your kids is the first step in being safe online.

It is worthwhile for parents to be aware of the capabilities of the Apps their kids are using. As Apps change frequently and are often re-released with new names and features it is difficult for parents to keep up with a list of all Apps their kids may be using.  Instead, here’s a general overview of how some of the popular Apps work and what risks they may carry in the hands of less mature users.

1. What is the purpose of the App?

Is it a game? A communication tool? Or a utility? From brain teasers to photo sharing to dynamic shopping lists and free phone service, mobile applications can make life easier, more fun or help us stay connected in creative ways.  If you’re considering letting your child use an App, first ask what it does and why your child wants to use it. Keep in mind, most Apps have blended purposes, for instance, you can chat with friends while you play games.

The Risks: Often, game “friends” can be total strangers to your child.  Also, some applications are mean spirited, designed to be critical or defame other people. Other Apps are simply not meant for kids, like dating Apps or sexually explicit ones. Any easy solution is to do a quick on-line search using the App name to find out what it does.

2. Does the App take and share pictures, video or audio?

People love selfies and what could be more fun than interacting with the world by sharing pictures and video.  But are you okay with your child’s image being shared with the universe? Understanding how and where your kid’s picture will be shared should dictate when and where that application is allowed to be used. Generally, there is no good reason for children to take pictures on their phones in private. It is always recommended that kids’ phones should stay out of bedrooms and bathrooms. Texting a silly picture to a classmate can be appropriate but posting the same photo on a public website may not be. Moreover, leaks of private information often occur through cellphones.  After all, sending and receiving information is what they’re designed to do!

The Risk: Sadly, some adults are good at fooling kids and bringing up their comfort level to a point where they share inappropriate information and pictures. But, there are also photo based applications that are fun, educational and can be secure. Satisfy yourself as to why the App wants your kid’s photo.

3. Is the APP tracking location information? If yes, why?

There are several ways to track the location of a device, the most specific is by global positioning system (GPS), which can pin-point a user to within a couple metres. Obviously this is extremely helpful with finding your way around when linked to a mapping App. Some Apps use this information to “tag” a post and it is largely a convenience where you don’t have to type where the post happened, the App will add that for you, and often show you other interesting posts nearby. Other Apps use this information to track other users close to you and to show you what others nearby are doing.

The Risks: If a child is using an App that displays their location for any purpose, they can be inadvertently broadcasting the location of their home, school, dance class and other frequently visited locations as well as showing the times when they are there. It wouldn’t be hard for anyone to figure out when the child is away from their parents. Some Apps make use of the tracking information to post user comments to people closest to them, which can quickly become a bullying situation. As well, there are several offerings that allow for casual dating encounters with people closest to you. If a child is experimenting with these Apps, it could be dangerous.

4. Does the App attempt to be anonymous or secretive?

Online anonymity is a double edged sword. If a child is trained to protect their identity online chatting can be fun and many Apps help that happen safely. However, there is also a whole class of Apps designed to hide user identity and activity that parents should know about.  For example, some apps can set up secret areas on a device or otherwise hide pictures and other Apps so parents won’t be able to see them on their child’s phone.

The Risks: Apps that facilitate anonymous connections between people are often easily exploited by potential online offenders who can pose as anyone they wish. As well, children themselves become more willing to take risks and send inappropriate material when they believe it will stay hidden or never linked back to them.  Time and time again it is proven, what happens online is seldom really private. Kids should be trained to never post anything they wouldn’t want the world to see.

5. Follow the money: Is the App free? Will the App require money or pay money to the user?

It is important to remember, most Apps are a money-making venture by their authors. They make money by either charging to buy them or by placing advertising in the App for users to see. The more popular the App, the more they can charge advertisers. Some Apps mimic legitimate banking Apps that allow users to get paid or make online payments themselves.

The Risks: Advertising content can be inappropriate or at odds with your family values, even if the App itself is fine.  If it is important to you, many free Apps will turn off advertisements and offer enhanced features if you pay for the App, usually that will cost less than $5. Other risks include games that incorporate purchases within the App. Young people can unwittingly rack up huge bills playing these games if they have access to their parent’s credit card information. If your kid has banking Apps or other financial services on their device, ask questions. If someone is sending them money you need to know why; likewise if they are spending money online that you didn’t approve.

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?

Knowledge is key for parents to keep their kids safe online, so the first step is to monitor their Internet and mobile device usage.  There are a number of additional preventative measures that parents can take in order to better protect their children when using computers and mobile Apps:

  • Parents should familiarize themselves with the computers and mobile devices that they are giving to their kids. Being knowledgeable about the technology will go a long way.
  • Make sure to install parental controls to the devices before giving them to your kids.
  • Always test any built-in or downloaded parental controls on the phone or device before handing it over to your child.
  • Whenever possible check the settings on various Apps to ensure that they are not broadcasting location information without your knowledge.
  • It is recommended that parents hold the passwords to their child’s email accounts, phones, devices and Apps.
  • It is also recommended that parents use their own sign-in credentials when configuring the phone or device so that your kids can not download paid Apps without your unique password. This provides an easy way for you to authorize all the Apps downloaded to your child’s phone.
  • Lastly, talk to your kids, set clear boundaries on device usage and let them know if they get into a situation online and don’t know what to do, the first step is to tell a responsible adult in their life.

Young people are more apt to report potential dangers or issues if you have had routine conversations about technology and online safety.

Visit internet safety for more valuable resources including, presentations, handouts, self-assessment and interactive learning tools.

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Related resources for parents, teachers and law enforcement:

 

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