— Originally published on ABC Life . Article by Grace Jennings-Edquist —
Keeping up with the social messaging apps used by today’s teenagers can feel overwhelming. So where’s a parent to start?
Gone are the days when teenagers communicated with their friends by hogging the landline, slipping a cheeky note into a schoolmate’s locker or chatting on MSN Messenger using the family computer.
Today, young people use a slew of apps and online platforms to share photos and videos, live stream themselves to groups or individuals, voice-chat with strangers as they play online games, or even seek anonymous (and often brutally honest) feedback on their appearance.
While these online platforms can have great social benefits for young people, the potential threats they pose to a teenager’s safety and wellbeing are enough to strike fear into any parent’s heart.
Back in the ’90s it was easy to tell when your child was communicating with someone else: you could see and hear them on the phone. But now things are much more complicated.
So we asked the experts which apps and platforms parents should be aware of — and how to navigate those tricky concerns you probably have about online wellbeing and safety.
The earlier you can have all these conversations, the better.
“The idea is to influence the way your kids think about social media and online safety early — before your influence and authority over them starts to dissipate.”
— Robyn Treyvaud
Which platforms is your teen using to communicate online?
At the very least, your young person is probably on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
Those are the most popular online platforms for teenagers, with a whopping 85 per cent of teens using YouTube, 72 per cent using Instagram, and 69 per cent on Snapchat, one US study found.
Facebook is nowhere near as popular as it once was with young people, but about half (51 per cent) of all teenagers still use it. Significantly more using the company’s Messenger app.
Young people with smartphones have plenty of options when it comes to communication though, so your kid might be using any number of platforms to socialise.
Broadly, the apps worth knowing about can be broken down into these categories:
Messaging apps (WhatsApp, Kik, WeChat, Viber, GroupMe, Jott, Tango)
- Texting via SMS has fallen out of fashion. These apps allow you to send text messages but they also include features such as group messaging, free calls, extra emojis, video chat, photo-sharing, and messages that delete after a set time.
- The risk factor: There are plenty of opportunities to connect with strangers on some of these apps. And a few of them allow sign-up without a phone number (meaning users can join anonymously, so it’s hard to tell if other users are who they say they are).
Photo-sharing platforms (Snapchat, Instagram)
- Some of these platforms, such as Instagram, are for sharing selfies and other photos. Others have self-destructing messages, meaning there’s a time limit on the pictures and videos.
- The risk factor: Snapchat’s self-destructing photo feature might make teens more willing to share racy photos and it’s far from “safe”. Screenshots can still be taken and shared without permission. Snapchat and Instagram are also among some of the most common platforms for cyberbullying, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner says. Finally, photo sharing apps’ emphasis on bodily perfection can give rise to body image issues, particularly in girls.
Confession and “feedback” platforms (Tellonym, Ask.fm, Whisper, Reddit’s “RoastMe” subreddit)
- These platforms allow users to post photos of themselves or confessional posts — and invite anonymous feedback from strangers or friends.
- The risk factor: The feedback given on these apps tends to be brutal and can involve sexual content, bullying, and even threats of violence. Former UK prime minister David Cameron has even asked British parents to boycott Ask.fm after cyberbullying there was linked to the suicide of young teens. Some of these apps also allow anonymous chats with strangers — and on some platforms it’s easy for anyone to sign up and pose as a teenager.
Streaming and video apps (HouseParty, Squad, LiveMe, TikTok)
- Some allow one-on-one or multi-person video conversations, a bit like a conference call. Others, including LiveMe or BIGO Live, allow kids to watch others and broadcast themselves live. TikTok allows users to upload self-made music videos and users often livestream via LiveMe and directly interact with audiences.
- The risk factor: Live stream platforms tend to carry risks of exposure to inappropriate content such as sexually charged questions, profanities and drug use. Predatory users can also be drawn to live stream apps, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner says. Meanwhile, HouseParty has a features called “note passing”, which let users talk about the other kids in the group video chat while it’s going on, without anyone knowing — a recipe for cyberbullying.
Apps to “meet new friends” (Yubo, Holla, MeetMe, Monkey)
- While these apps are all about chatting with and meeting new people, in reality they often have a flirty undertone. Monkey connects you with random strangers for 15-second video chats, while Yubo — sometimes referred to as “Tinder for teens” — involves swiping right or left on users’ profiles.
- The risk factor: People with sinister intentions or predatory behaviour can be particularly attracted to games or apps that are popular with kids and involve pairing with strangers, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner says. Random video chats with strangers can also involve lewd content. And Yubo, marketed at 13 to 17-year-olds, can be connected to Snapchat, so if you swipe to accept a friendship, you can be connected to a platform where you can share photos and videos with those strangers.
Online games, game-streaming platforms and gaming chat (Twitch, Fortnite, Discord)
- Teenagers are crazy about gaming these days and there’s often a social element involved: About half of kidsaged eight to 17 have played online games with people they haven’t met in person. Online video games such as Fortnite often allow users to voice-chat with strangers they’re playing against, while the popular streaming platform Twitch allow users to live stream themselves playing various games while strangers comment in a chat box (or chat amongst themselves).
- The risk factor: Fortnite’s online chat feature could expose younger players to offensive language or adult content from random strangers, including older players. Twitch and Discord are primarily geared towards adults, so teens can be exposed to other players discussing mature games involving sex, violence, and drugs.
Helping your young person stay safe online
There are many benefits from social networking and online gaming — and truthfully your teenager would probably feel like a social pariah if they were forced off them all.
But the unfortunate reality is pretty much social media platforms have a potential downside.
Similarly, every single social networking app has the ability to be used for cyberbullying, adds Martine Oglethorpe, online safety expert and founder of digital wellbeing website The Modern Parent.
“They can find hardcore pornography, gun sales, suicidal ideation, self-harming — all those kinds of things are going to be there on an app, if you know the right types of hashtags or emoji hashtags to search for.”
There are a few steps you can take to help your teenager stay safer online, though:
Research the platforms your kid is using
To work out what’s popular in your kid’s peer group, start by simply asking them what’s popular with people their age, suggests Robyn Treyvaud, head of education at Family Insights Group and co-author of The Parents’ Survival Guide to the Internet.
If your child agrees, you could even take a look at his or her smartphone so you can see the apps for yourself (but be aware that some teens use ‘disguise’ apps to hide their social apps under icons that look like calculators and the like).
Some apps have better track records than others when it comes to screening users to make sure they’re who they say they are, and responding to reports of inappropriate use.
To get a sense of whether the apps your teen is using present any major risks, Ms Treyvaud suggests searching Common Sense Media for reviews and reported safety concerns relating to each app.
Start the conversations early
Your child will be best placed to handle the risks involved in social apps and platforms if you talk to them often about things like protecting their personal information online; the consequences of posting inappropriate material of themselves or others; and strategies for when things go wrong, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner advises.
Building your young person’s resilience is also important. “There are going to be parties we are not invited to, and maybe we should not be scrolling our feeds looking at photos of the party that night if that’s the case,” Ms Oglethorpe says.
Essentially, building online resilience is about encouraging your kid to make sure he or she is getting the positive effects of those social connections rather than simply being drawn into endless negative comparisons with others.
The earlier you can have all these conversations, the better.
(The idea is to influence the way your kids think about social media and online safety early — before your influence and authority over them starts to dissipate, says Ms Treyvaud.)
Bonus tip: Use car rides to broach tricky topics, “which are always difficult when you’re eyeballing each other face to face,” Ms Treyvaud notes.
Lay some ground rules
It’s wise to agree on some firm ground rules with your teenager.
Ideally, put together a Family Media Agreement to set guidelines around respect on social media and privacy concerns.
(You can use an online tool such as The Smart Talk.)
Some of the rules you agree on might include designating “device-free zones” — for example, no phones at the dinner table, or no devices in the bedroom (the latter will also helps save your kids’ sleep).
Other guidelines worth considering include a ban on sharing of real names and other personal information when talking to strangers online, and a rule against taking or sharing photos of others online without their permission, suggests the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.
Frame your conversations around shared values, not confrontation
Approaching conversations about social media gently and from a place of shared values is likely to be more effective than a confrontation, says Ms Treyvaud.
“Make a conversation of it. You could ask: Do you know anyone using that app? What do you think about the sorts of apps that allow people to anonymously give feedback? Do you think that’s respectful? Do you see how that might affect someone’s self-esteem?,” she says.
“One of the things that gets lost when you’ve got a screen between people is empathy. So it’s about throwing the conversation back to: how do you think that might make the other person feel?”
Think twice before issuing a blanket ban
You have the right, the responsibility and the duty of care to keep your kids safe, and it’s certainly appropriate to give your perspective and voice your concerns from a place of respect, says Ms Treyvaud.
You might tell your teen: “I’m concerned about the safety and cyberbullying concerns on that app, and I’d be asking that you not ask for anonymous feedback on yourself, or give negative feedback on others.”
While it might be tempting to issue a blanket ban on certain apps, be warned that banning certain platforms could erode the trusting relationship you have with your child, says Ms Treyvaud.
And don’t forget, “kids are pretty clever at hiding apps, they can just go into incognito mode,” she says.
“Generally, kids are going to hang out where there mates are.”
The best thing you can do as a parent, then, is to make sure they’re using social media in the healthiest and safest way possible.
After all, as Ms Oglethorpe says: “It’s not necessarily the technology that’s the dangerous bit. It’s how we use it.”