Online safety is a prevalent topic that should be revisited periodically. As new social media apps become popular with kids and others fall out of favor, it’s a good idea for parents, and in some cases educators, to familiarize themselves with various platforms and what they are used for. Understanding how social media platforms are used by your children can help you make informed decisions about how to protect them when they are online.
Kids love to communicate with their friends and they are finding more and more ways to do this online. In recent history, gaming has become a widespread way to stay connected with the outside world. Kids connect online through Xbox Live, for example. Let’s dig into a gaming social media app, Discord, which is a voice and text app that was designed for gamers to communicate with one another. While it was initially created for gamers to chat while they’re playing video games, it has turned into a wildly popular social network with more than 120 million users. Chats, often referred to as servers by fluent users of Discord, can be joined by invitation or users can create private servers (aka groups) and invite friends. Typically, Discord is utilized to discuss gaming, which was the original intent, but one does not need to be engaged in gaming to use the app. This means anyone can join. You may have heard of the “dark side” of Discord, such as the group chats that were used to plan a fatal Black Lives Matter counter-protest in Charlottesville.
To participate on Discord, users must be 13 years old and if they are under 17 years of age, must state they have parental permission. If your child sets up an account without your knowledge or permission, you are afforded the right to have the account removed or deleted.
Keep in mind that the app does not currently offer parental controls. This, of course, makes it even more appealing for kids to use. Parents have no way of controlling the privacy settings or restricting content. This leaves kids vulnerable to being exposed to inappropriate content. There are NSFW (Not Safe For Work) servers or groups tagged on Discord and these servers are noted as 18+ for mature content. The good news is that in order to enter these servers, or groups, you must share a picture of your ID. This, at least, creates additional work for users to see inappropriate content. Even without ID, regular users do not get a mature content notice before joining and, unfortunately, this means your kid can be exposed to pornography, something Discord is known for. If your child is interested or if you want your child to use Discord, there is, however, a “keep me safe” option. This is a privacy and safety level that scans messages for mature content. It’s important to talk to your teen about opting into this feature and encourage him or her to use it as a condition of participating on the platform. After all, as the parent, you have the right to delete their account. In some instances, account removal could result in the deletion of your child’s groups of friends, or the whole network of friends, if your child is the creator of the server. That would surely ruin your teen’s social life and reputation!
Instagram and TikTok
Two extremely popular photo and video sharing platforms are Instagram and TikTok. You would have to live under a rock to not know what these platforms are, but here is a brief explanation of each.
Instagram is a photo and video sharing app. It includes a feed where followers can “like” images and videos of accounts that you follow. It also has a “stories” feature that can display still photos or videos. The content in “stories” disappears after 24 hours. In the feed, people post images and a caption in hopes of gaining “likes” and online approval from peers or followers. Sometimes it’s all about the witty caption that gains attention and sparks likes and comments.
Instagram can even be used as a way to sell products through influencers. This marketing approach has changed the way retailers spend their advertising dollars.
Influencers and other Instagram users have been criticized for depicting images that would lead one to believe they have a “perfect life.” This especially creates comparison among youth and adults alike and leads to feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. This is especially true in regard to the mental health of teen girls, who view the number of likes they get on Instagram as a popularity contest. There are many instances where mothers of teen girls even photoshop pictures in order to create the “perfect” image.
A common statement to remember is “Instagram vs. Real Life.” An example of an “Instagram vs. Real Life” post is where one would post a seemingly perfect photo on one slide that represents Instagram perfection, or the perception of perfection. The next slide would be almost the same scenario, but it is less than perfect with maybe somebody’s eyes closed, or the perfect backdrop is panned out and you can see the messy pile of clothes on the floor in the corner, which was previously cropped out of the “perfection” photo. The less than perfect scenario represents “real life.” This tongue in cheek type of post creates humor and shows that not all things posted on Instagram are what they seem.
One thing that parents should be aware of regarding Instagram is that the default privacy settings are always public, which means anyone can see the images. It’s good to know this information and encourage your teen to change that setting in an effort to create some online privacy and safety. Instagram does have a screen time limit setting, but it was pointed out to me that it can be ignored. My trusty 14-year-old source told me that when her friends’ parents restrict screen time on their phones, for example after 9pm, and try to limit when they can text or Facetime friends, her friends log in to Instagram to chat or use the video chat feature. As parents, it’s important to be aware of these types of loopholes. Kids are smart and they will always find a way to beat the system.
Another popular video sharing platform is TikTok. This platform is dedicated to short, self-made videos set to music or voices of other people. It’s a fun way to show creativity by creating your own dance moves or adding your own flare to a particular dance that is trending. The app includes features like adjusting speed, cool filters, and a way to record a piece with another friend online. TikTok is appealing to kids because of the wide variety of content. When I asked a 14-year-old girl what she liked about TikTok most, her response was “The dances, comedy sketches and beauty routines. There are also cute animal videos and lifestyle videos like street roller skating and roller dancing.” As you can tell, there is something for everybody on TikTok, and it’s easy to fall down the TikTok rabbit hole and spend a lot of time on the app. A warning to parents: because the app uses music, parents should know there is a risk of kids being exposed to explicit lyrics. Fortunately, there is a Family Pairing option in the settings which allows you to customize your teen’s TikTok settings for a safer experience. These settings include establishing a limit on your teen’s watch time, limiting content that isn’t suitable for your teen, managing your teen’s privacy and safety settings, and choosing whether your teen can have a private or public account.
Up to this point we have talked mostly about teens and their presence on social media. This is for good reason, and that point will be addressed in a moment. There are, however, apps targeted at a younger audience. Have you heard of Messenger Kids? It’s a free app created by Facebook that is aimed at kids under 13 years of age. It has fun features like photo filters, GIFs and video chats. The best part is that parents get to decide who has access to communicate with their kids. Parents approve all of the contacts via their own Facebook account. It’s a fun way to stay in touch with family and friends. But don’t be fooled, the perceived innocence of this platform can be misleading. While it may seem safe for the user because parents get to hand pick who their child engages with, unsupervised children can take photos of anything they want and publish them to anybody in their network. Believe me, if there is a chance to push boundaries, it will happen. Conversations about appropriate content are critical to have with young children to teach proper online etiquette.
Learn more on this episode of Building the Bridge, “All You Need to Know About Kids and Social Media in 15 Minutes”
Online Privacy for Children
The good news is, there are laws in place that are designed to protect the privacy of our children. Have you ever wondered why most social media platforms state that you must be 13 years of age to be a user? In 1998, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, was created. According to the Federal Trade Commission, this law was designed to protect children under age 13, while accounting for the dynamic nature of the internet. COPPA’s foundational principle is one that most people can agree on: Parents – not kids, companies, platforms, or content creators – should be in control when it comes to information collected from children online. COPPA imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age.
In September of 2019, COPPA took action against YouTube and Google and agreed on a settlement. To settle the case, YouTube and Google agreed to create a mechanism so that channel owners can designate when the videos they upload to YouTube are – to use the words of COPPA – “directed to children.” The purpose of this requirement is to make sure that both YouTube and channel owners are complying with the law.
Social media platforms are here to stay and they are constantly evolving. As a matter of fact, many of our children are staying socially engaged during the pandemic through the use of social media. A key point to remember is there is no age verification for social media apps. Your child can state they are at least 13 years old even if they are not. Understanding what the social media platforms are, their privacy policies, their safety settings and parental controls – or lack thereof, and the ways they are used by your children, can help you make informed decisions about how to protect them when they are online. If you haven’t already, ask your kids what platforms they use and why they like them, then conduct a little research on their policies. Information is empowering!