When my daughter was in Grade 4, I was stunned to learn that many of her schoolmates had Instagram accounts. I had told her that she was too young to sign up for Facebook but I hadn’t thought it necessary to tell her that the photo- and video-sharing app was also off-limits.
It taught me an important lesson about how quickly things change. Four years previously, when her twin sisters had been her age, none of their friends used social media. But with the proliferation of WiFi-enabled devices such as iPads and smartphones, kids are signing on and tuning in at younger ages.
A 2014 MediaSmarts survey found that 25 per cent of Canadian fourth graders have a cellphone; by sixth grade, the figure rises to 60 per cent. Although social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram require users to be 13, almost 33 per cent of the fourth to sixth graders surveyed said they signed up anyway. The age guidelines are no barrier to access because kids just plug in a fictitious date of birth.
Social media apps have become an important way for kids to engage with each other and establish an online persona, but they also offer particular challenges and possible threats to kids who don’t fully understand the potential pitfalls of digital communication. In my years of consulting with schools and parents, I have witnessed serious issues, including cyberbullying, death threats, identity theft and sexual harassment with kids of all ages.
The following is a short description of some of the social media apps most popular with primary school kids, tweens and young teens, as well as tips about what parents should discuss with their children. If you are unclear about a term or how privacy settings work on any of these networks, use Google to search for definitions and explanations.
This photo- and video-sharing app is a popular social media network for young kids, teens and adults. You need to come up with a username (typically not your real name), and post images and videos with a brief description and/or hashtags. Images can be manipulated with the filters and photo-editing tools in the app. Followers can like or comment on your posts.
Parents should pay attention to the images shared and to the privacy settings. Discuss what kinds of images your kids want to put out into the world. There is no guarantee you can delete them once they are posted on the Internet, and you can’t control how people may react to or use your pictures. Always ask permission before posting pictures of other people. Most kids want to build the highest follower count possible, but this means strangers can view, like, comment and direct message them. Always start off with settings configured to keep your account private, which means only approved followers can view your images.
This free messaging app lets users send texts, images and emojis with online profiles that can be anonymous, not linked to their real names or phone numbers. According to the company, it’s the app of choice for 40 per cent of U.S. teens. It has a built-in browser and all sorts of internal native apps (for games, music, videos and flirting, for example), making it an Internet within the web for those born after the turn of the millennium. The case of 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell gained media attention when it was discovered that she had used the app to communicate with the 18-year-old man charged with her assault and murder. (Police couldn’t uncover any information about the man from the app).
Parents should pay attention to the un-traceability of content shared on this app, making it popular among bullies, predators and those with unsavoury intentions. The anonymity of Kik accounts frees some people up to be mean, cruel or provocative. Users, especially those with female names, may be sent unsolicited nude images and receive requests for nude pictures.
Similar to Dubsmash, this popular app is a social network for sharing user-produced music videos up to 15 seconds long. You can produce your own work, remix other people’s work or browse content created by other users or famous artists. It can be an exciting, creative space for producing and sharing original content, and kids love the digital effects. The music compositions can also be exported to share on other social media apps.
Parents should look closely at the settings, as users can choose to share content with the general public or only with approved friends. Kids often want to build the highest possible follower count, since this tends to be seen as a measure of popularity, but content shared with strangers opens up the possibility of upsetting or inappropriate interactions and material. Kids also don’t always think about the implications of sharing images and information about themselves (and others), or what it might mean to have this content floating around the Internet in 10 or 20 years. Some videos shared by others have explicit sexual content and violent imagery or lyrics.
This popular message-, photo- and video-sharing app lets users send posts and set them to delete after a set amount of time (typically one to 10 seconds). This very popular gimmick frees users to send content that they might otherwise deem too outrageous, embarrassing or inappropriate, because they feel protected knowing it will be deleted. Users can also use it for live video chat and post Snaps in narrative format, as part of a story that gets deleted after 24 hours. Depending on your settings, stories can be viewed by all Snapchatters, your friends, or a select group of people.
Parents should pay attention to the illusion of control offered by the auto delete function. Because of it, many users have felt comfortable sending materials, such as sexually explicit photos, that they wouldn’t normally send online. The app alerts you if someone takes a screenshot of the image before it deletes (though by then the damage is done). Furthermore, there are third party apps that can disable these alerts so you may never know if someone took a screenshot. The critical message for parents to impart to kids is that they should never share anything in a digital format that they wouldn’t want everyone to see, because there is no way to guarantee they can control who sees it or where it gets copied and reposted.
This site is a platform for asking and posting anonymous questions. Users can post comments on others profiles, and ask and answer questions without revealing their identities. The site has been linked to a wide variety of bullying incidents around the world, as well as teen suicides. Users only know the number of followers, not the profiles of those who follow them.
Parents should discuss with kids how anonymity frees people up to be more hurtful or cruel. Although the site has made moves to be more supportive of users in the wake of publicized incidents, many have reported frustration over attempts to block or report malicious activity.
Yik Yak is a free, social networking app that uses GPS to let users post text or images anonymously to the 500 users physically closest to them. People can “upvote” or “downvote” people’s posts. Message content varies from simple questions and personal opinions to posts about sex, drugs and alcohol.
Parents should be aware that users are supposed to be 17 years old, though there are no safeguards. The usual concerns about anonymity are a factor as is the geolocation element. Because of it, posts tend to revolve around particular schools or communities, and can involve bullying. Because of concerns about bullying, photos are no longer allowed to feature faces.
Alissa Sklar, Ph.D. runs Risk-Within-Reason.com, a consultancy project offering digital technology safety workshops for parents, teachers and students of all ages. Alissa has a doctorate in communications and cultural studies,has taught at Concordia University, and spent four years researching adolescent risk behaviours at McGill University.