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Parents' Guide: Keeping Children Safe Online

Parents' Guide: Keeping Children Safe Online

Does your child have a phone or other new piece of technology? Are your children always on their iPhones or tablets? Do your children have a Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, or KIK account? If you answer yes for any of these questions – or if your answer was, “What’s SnapChat and KIK?” – these hints, tips and tricks for parenting in the digital world will be helpful.

After a recent study on the impact of social media on kids and families, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported that there could be benefits to children using sites like Facebook. Those benefits include increased communication, access to information, and help in developing a sense of self. But, there can be serious downsides to all this online sharing, too.

Social networking is on the rise. The study found that 22 percent of teenagers log onto their favorite social media sites more than 10 times a day, and 75 percent own cell phones. This level of engagement online increases the risks of cyberbullying, “Facebook depression” (a new phenomenon where “de-friending” and online bullying lead to symptoms of depression), exposure to inappropriate content, and sexting.

Just as we prepare our kids for life in the real world, we should prepare them for life in the online world.

Smart Practices for Parents in the Digital World

No Underage Facebooking

Did you know that no one under the age of 13 is permitted to join Facebook? Of course, there is no real way for Facebook to truly enforce this limit, because everyone can lie about age. That’s why it’s up to parents to ensure their children stay away from Facebook until 13 – and until you as a parent are comfortable with them having an account.

Check the Device’s Privacy Settings

Check that the privacy settings for the Internet and Facebook on your children’s digital devices are set to the strictest levels. Depending on which browser you are using, you can adjust settings directly from the “options” tab. Adjust levels on things such as cookies, third party sites, and more. This protects the computer user as well as the computer from the threat of viruses.

Checking Facebook privacy settings is easy, too. Ensure that you are up to speed on Facebook’s privacy policy and make any change

Create Ground Rules

If your kids are old enough to use the computer on their own, they are old enough to understand that there are rules they need to follow. Breaking those rules should not have a lesser consequence than if they broke a rule in the offline world. One way for families to agree on ground rules is to create a contract that all parties must sign. The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) encourages parents and kids to have an open discussion about what these rules mean, and offers a good example.

Learn Your Child’s Habits

You don’t need to be a super sleuth and spy on your kid’s every online move, but it is important to be aware of the people they are associating with and the kinds of sites they are frequenting. After all, you get to know the friends they are hanging out with at school; knowing their online friends shouldn’t be any different. Parents should require full access to their children’s Facebook friends and the ability to take a look whenever they wish.

Keep Computers in a Central Location

It’s much easier to keep tabs on online activity when computers are located in a high-traffic zone rather than in the privacy of a child’s own room. Place computers in a central location like your kitchen or family room so everything is out in the open.

Teach Children to Avoid Online Questionnaires, Free Giveaways and Contests

A pop-up ad appears and tells kids they can win a free iPad by simply clicking the link. Anyone would be tempted by this kind of offer, but kids are particularly susceptible. It’s important to warn kids against falling for this kind of Internet trick. Many of these ruses are attempts to glean personal information or to download malware to digital devices. Teach children that even if a friend forwards a fun online questionnaire, it’s best to close the window and not participate.

Monitor Pictures Your Children Post Online

In an ideal world, your children would never post photos of themselves online, but that might not be entirely realistic. If children want to share photos with their friends via email or a social networking site, be sure you know exactly which pictures are being posted. Make sure the content of the photo is completely innocuous and that no identifiable locales are noticeable in the background.

Set a Good Example

If parents are tweeting and updating their Facebook pages at a stoplight or taking every opportunity to “just check something,” they are setting a poor precedent for social media use that children will surely follow. Always ask yourself if you’re setting a good example and demonstrating proper technology etiquette as well.

Limit Cell Phone Use

Parents should limit cell phone use, just as they would limit use of a computer, TV or gaming system. Only allow cell phone use at certain hours in the evening or after homework has been completed.

If you have teens of driving age, teach them that under no circumstances should cell phones ever be used while driving. (For underage teens in Ohio, this is a primary offense, meaning police can pull drivers over for texting while driving.) Phones should be kept off or in the glove compartment so incoming text sounds aren’t a distraction.

Teach Kids about their Online Reputation

What is posted online stays online forever. Many kids don’t understand the permanence of the images and messages they post online. They also don’t understand that there are no secrets in social media. Parents should talk to their children about the impact posting inappropriate messages and images could have if a future college administrator or employer were to find them.

Talk to Kids about Online Dangers

You may feel like you’re scaring your kids when talking to them about the dangers of being online, but it’s better for them to be scared than to be unaware. Having an open line of communication is crucial the minute your kids start using the Internet more independently.

Top Social Media Apps


This is the world’s largest social network, with more than 1 billion users worldwide.

What parents need to know

Facebook is not private. Anything posted online, whether it’s an image or a comment, stays in cyberspace forever. A Facebook post is only as good as a friendship. A friend today may be gone tomorrow. What happens with that post or image then? That “no-longer” friend may disseminate it to others. Images might even be digitally altered and sent to others.

Many parents think “friending” their kids is enough to keep them safe and ensure they are behaving appropriately on Facebook. However, many kids are creating two Facebook profiles, one for their friends and one for their parents.

According to the FBI, there are 500,000 predators trying to engage kids online. Facebook is one of the venues where predators try to “friend” children and establish a relationship.

Whenever a child posts anything on Facebook, whether it’s an image or a comment, it can affect their futures. Why? Because every time a child posts something online, they are creating their own personal brand online and a permanent digital footprint that stays in cyberspace forever. Children should be taught to think, “Is this post or image really representing who I am? Would I be embarrassed if a teacher or my grandma saw it?”

KIK Messenger

This app lets kids text for free. It’s fast and has no message limits, character limits, or fees if you only use the basic features. Because it’s an app, the texts won’t show up on a phone’s messaging service, and you’re not charged for them (beyond standard data rates).

What parents need to know

It’s loaded with ads and in-app-purchases.

KIK specializes in “promoted chats,” which are basically conversations between brands and users. It also offers specially designed apps (accessible only through the main app), many of which offer products for sale.

There’s some stranger danger. An app named OinkText, linked to KIK, allows communication with strangers who share their KIK usernames to find people to chat with. There’s also a KIK community blog where users can submit photos of themselves and screenshots of messages (sometimes displaying users’ full names) to contests.


This is a free video, voice, and messaging app. Users can have group chats with up to 12 people for free. It’s common for kids to log on after school and keep it open while doing homework.

What parents need to know

You can only chat with approved friends. Users can only communicate with those on their approved contact lists, which can help ease parents’ safety concerns.

It can be distracting. Because the service makes video chatting so affordable and accessible, it also can be addicting. A conversation with your kids about multitasking may be in order.


This app lets users send text messages, audio messages, videos, and photos to one or many people with no message limits or fees.

What parents need to know

It’s supposed to be for users 16 and over, but lots of younger teens seem to be using the app. This age minimum has been set by WhatsApp.

It can be pushy. After you sign up, it automatically connects you to all the people in your address book who also are using WhatsApp. It also encourages you to add friends who haven’t signed up yet.


This lets users snap, edit, and share photos and 15-second videos, either publicly or with a private network of followers. It unites the most popular features of social media sites: sharing, seeing, and commenting on photos. It also lets you apply fun filters and effects to your photos, making them look high quality and artistic.

What parents need to know

Teens are on the lookout for digital “likes.” Similar to the way they use Facebook, teens may measure the “success” of their photos — even their self-worth — by the number of likes or comments they receive. Posting a photo or video can be problematic if teens post it to validate their popularity.

Public photos are the default. Photos and videos shared on Instagram are public unless privacy settings are adjusted. Hashtags and location information can make photos even more visible to communities beyond a teen’s followers if his or her account is public.

Private messaging is now an option. Instagram Direct allows users to send “private messages” to up to 15 mutual friends. These pictures don’t show up on their public feeds. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with group chats, kids may be more likely to share inappropriate things with their inner circles.


This app lets you share and experience live video streams direct from a smartphone or tablet. It can be used to capture the atmosphere among fans at an important match, to broadcast an unfolding news story, or to experience what it’s like to walk down the streets of Mount Vernon or New York City.

What parents should know

The premise of the app is that it allows you to live stream video, direct from your phone or tablet.

Aside from just watching video streams, Periscope allows for real time interaction. Viewers can “heart” the streams they like and can interact with the person streaming the video through the comments/chat function.

You can explore the videos being broadcast in different parts of the world through the interactive map feature. This allows you to search for videos by location and find streams of particular events taking place.

All Periscope accounts and broadcasts are public for anyone to see, unless you adjust the settings. The integration with Twitter makes it easier to reach a worldwide audience very quickly.


This is like a cross between a blog and Twitter. It’s a streaming scrapbook of text, photos, and/or videos and audio clips. Users create and follow short blogs, or “tumblelogs,” that can be seen by anyone online (if made public). Many teens have tumblelogs for personal use: sharing photos, videos, musings, and things they find funny with their friends.

What parents need to know

Privacy can be guarded but only through an awkward workaround. The first profile a member creates is public and viewable by anyone on the Internet. Members who desire full privacy have to create a second profile, which they’re able to password-protect.

Pornography is easy to find. This online hangout is hip and creative but sometimes raunchy. Pornographic images and videos and depictions of violence, self-harm, drug use, and offensive language are easily searchable.

Posts are often copied and shared. Reblogging on Tumblr is similar to re-tweeting: A post is reblogged from one tumblelog to another. Many teens like — and, in fact, want — their posts reblogged. But do you really want your kids’ words and photos on someone else’s page?


This is a microblogging site that allows users to post brief, 140-character messages — called “tweets” — and follow other users’ activities. It’s not only for adults. Teens like using it to share tidbits and keep up with news and celebrities.

What parents need to know

Public tweets are the norm for teens. Though you can choose to keep your tweets private, most teens report having public accounts. Talk to your kids about what they post and how a post can spread far and fast.

Updates appear immediately. Even though you can remove tweets, your followers can still read what you wrote until it’s gone. This can get kids in trouble if they say something in the heat of the moment.


This social media app lets users post and watch looping six-second video clips. This Twitter-owned service has developed a unique community of people who post videos that are often creative, funny, and sometimes thought-provoking. Teens usually use Vine to create and share silly videos of themselves and/or their friends and families.

What parents need to know

It’s full of inappropriate videos.

There are significant privacy concerns. The videos you post, the accounts you follow, and the comments you make on videos all are public by default. But you can adjust your settings to protect your posts so that only followers will see them, and you have to approve new followers.

Parents can be star performers (without their knowledge). If your teens film you being goofy or silly, you may want to talk about whether they plan to share it.

Self-Destructive and Secret Apps

Burn Note

This app erases its messages after a set period of time. Unlike many other apps of this sort, it limits itself to text messages. Users cannot send pictures or video. That may reduce issues such as sexting, but words can hurt, too.

What parents need to know

It allows kids to communicate covertly. To discourage copying and taking screenshots, a spotlight-like system that recipients direct with a finger (or the mouse) only reveals a portion of the message at a time.

It may encourage risky sharing. The company claims that its “Multi-Device Deletion” system can delete a message from anywhere: the device it was sent from, the device it was sent to, and its own servers. But it’s wise to be skeptical of this claim, and it’s always possible for anything sent online to be copied as an image via screenshots.

You don’t have to have the app to receive a Burn Note. Unlike other apps — for example, Snapchat — users can send a Burn Note to anyone, including others who don’t have the program.


This messaging app lets users put a time limit on the pictures and videos they send before they disappear. Most teens use the app to share goofy or embarrassing photos without the risk of them going public. However, there are lots of opportunities to use it in other ways.

What parents need to know

It’s a myth that Snapchats go away forever. Data is data: Whenever an image is sent, it never truly goes away. For example, the person on the receiving end can take a screenshot of the image before it disappears. Snapchats can even be recovered.

It can make sexting seem OK. The seemingly risk-free messaging might encourage users to share pictures containing sexy images.

Tap Talk

After connecting via Facebook, this app lets you tap the image of a friend to take a picture. By holding their picture down, you record a short video of a few seconds. Using the front-facing camera, users can send a selfie or, as is often the case, a short video message to that friend. Click on the bottom half of the camera field and you can type in a short message.

What parents need to know

The app displays both the photo and a map of where you are when you upload the picture.

Talking a cue from SnapChat, any photo of video you send can’t be retrieved after you’ve seen it. You also can’t pre-take a photo and upload it. Everything you send to others is unique.

Because the app displays both the photo/and a map of where you are — in the case of sending a video — this means the app is turning into a sort of video walkie-talkie.


This a social “confessional” app that allows users to post whatever’s on their minds, paired with an image. With all the emotions running through teens, anonymous outlets give them the freedom to share their feelings with the perception that they are free of judgment.

What parents need to know

Whispers are often sexual in nature. Some users use the app to try to hook up with people nearby, while others post “confessions” of desire. Lots of eye-catching nearly nude pics accompany these shared secrets.

Content can be dark. People normally don’t confess sunshine and rainbows. Common Whisper topics include insecurity, depression, substance abuse, and various lies told to employers and teachers.

Although it’s anonymous to start, it may not stay that way. The app encourages users to exchange personal information in the “Meet Up” section.


This free social-networking app lets users post brief, Twitter-like comments to the 500 geographically nearest Yik Yak users. Kids can find out opinions, secrets, rumors, and more. Plus, they’ll get the bonus thrill of knowing all these have come from a 1.5-mile radius (maybe even from the kids at the desks in front of them!).

What parents need to know

It reveals your location. By default, your exact location is shown unless you toggle location-sharing off. Each time you open the app, GPS updates your location.

It’s a mixed bag of trouble. This app has it all: cyberbullying, explicit sexual content, unintended location-sharing, and exposure to explicit information about drugs and alcohol.

Some schools have banned access. Mount Vernon City Schools has blocked this app on our Internet, but all students have to do is use their own phone’s cellular signal and they are online. Some teens have used the app to threaten others, causing school lockdowns in other parts of the country. The app’s gossipy and sometimes cruel nature can be toxic to a school environment.

Chatting, Meeting, and Dating Apps and Sites


This is a photo and messaging dating app for browsing pictures of potential matches within a certain-mile radius of the user’s location. It’s very popular with 20-somethings as a way to meet new people for casual or long-term relationships.

What parents need to know

Meeting up (and possibly hooking up) is pretty much the goal.

It’s all about swipes. You swipe right to “like” a photo or left to “pass.” If a person whose photo you “liked” swipes “like” on your photo, too, the app allows you to message each other.

It’s location-based. Geolocation means it’s possible for teens to meet up with nearby people, which can be very dangerous.

Meet Me

“Chat and Meet New People,” says it all. Although not marketed as a dating app, MeetMe does have a “Match” feature whereby users can “secretly admire” others, and its large user base means fast-paced communication and guaranteed attention.

What parents need to know

It’s an open network. Users can chat with others online, as well as search locally, opening the door for potential trouble.

Lots of details are required. First and last name, age, and ZIP code are requested at registration, or you can log in using a Facebook account. The app also asks permission to use location services on your teens’ mobile devices, meaning they can find the closest matches wherever they go.


This is a chat site (and app) that puts two strangers together in their choice of a text chat or video chat room. Being anonymous can be very attractive to teens, and Omegle provides a no-fuss opportunity to make connections. Its “interest boxes” also let users filter potential chat partners by shared interests.

What parents need to know

Users get paired up with strangers. That’s the whole premise of the app. And there’s no registration required.

This is not an app for kids and teens. Omegle is filled with people searching for sexual chat. Some prefer to do so live. Others offer links to porn sites.

Language is a big issue. Since the chats are anonymous, they’re often much more explicit than those with an identifiable user might be.


This is a flirting app that allows users to sign up as teens or adults. They’re then placed in the appropriate peer group, where they can post to a feed, comment on others’ posts, add pictures, and chat. They’ll get notifications when other users near their geographic area join, and they can search other areas by cashing in points. They receive notifications when someone “checks” them out but must pay points to see who it is.

What parents need to know

If your teens are going to use a dating app, Skout is probably the safest choice, if only because it has a teens-only section that seems to be moderated reasonably well.

There’s no age verification. This makes it easy for a teen to say their older than 18 and an adult to say their younger.

Secret Apps to Hide Items

The following apps were all created to hide things away from others. Many of the apps require additional PIN numbers to access the “hidden” material. Some of the apps even go as far as calling itself a calculator and looking/functioning like a calculator, to only have a PIN unlock a secret hidden vault of items.

Parents should be wary and start asking questions if they see any of the following apps on their child’s device.

Private Photo Vault

This allows users to import photos into albums and hide them behind a PIN lock. Beyond basic password protection, the app has two other bonus features called “break-in report” and “decoy password.” If someone tries to enter the app, it will secretly take a photo of the person and log their GPS location so you can see who was trying to access your private photos. Users also have the option to set up a decoy password that launches a different set of pictures.

Gallery Lock Lite

Unlike other apps, Gallery Lock Lite lets you put the app icon in “Stealth Mode,” so it doesn’t appear on your phone. If you opt for this feature, you’ll have to access the app by typing in an asterisk, your password and pressing “Call.” Gallery Lock Lite will also catch a photo of any intruder with your phone’s front-facing camera after three failed password attempts.

Best Secret Folder

This app is used by people who don’t want anyone to know that they downloaded a privacy app. The icon is disguised as “My Utilities,” so no one will ever guess there are private photos tucked away in a phone.

Keep Safe

This is a simple app with basic password protection for photos and videos. Users simply type in a PIN and import photos to albums in the app.


This app’s icon is disguised as a calculator with the label of Ky-Calc. When the app is launched, a fully functional calculator appears. All a user has to do is punch in a 4-digit PIN number and the equal sign, and they have access to hidden contents. Along with hidden photos, you can store PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and text files. KYMS allows you to import media from your computer, camera roll, the web and more.


In addition to password-protected galleries, Vaulty allows users to edit photos, sort and filter files, and create multiple vaults with different passwords. It hide photos and videos. Like similar apps, Vaulty includes a “mug shot” feature, with which it snaps a photo of anyone who enters the incorrect password.


Specifically designed for hiding photos, PhotoVault differs from other apps because it has public and private galleries. The Private gallery is password-protected for hidden photos, and the Public gallery is accessible to anyone on your phone. Users can choose to set the app to open in Public mode, so it appears to be like any other photo app.

Bonus “Hidden” Album in iOS8 and Up

Although this isn’t the most secure way to hide photos, it is an alternative to downloading a privacy app. With Apple’s iOS 8 update, users have the option to “hide” a photo from your Collections album. The hidden album is not password-protected, so anyone can still access it.