As the Christmas season kicks off with Black Friday this week, parents are busy making gift plans for the kids. At the top of wish lists everywhere are internet-connected smartphones, tablets, laptops, and music players. Most parents are very well-intentioned when it comes to deciding what to give their kids for Christmas, but many never consider the inherent risks of the Internet and the responsibility that comes with giving a child an Internet-connected device.
When parents hand a child an Internet-connected device, they give them access to the Internet and everything on it. Most parents understand that kids should be monitored when watching TV, but many fail to exercise that same caution with iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touch devices. Many parents never check the devices to monitor a child’s activity, and some even allow kids to have private, unsupervised time with these devices.
My heart here is to simply inform non-tech savvy parents of the risks of giving an Internet-connected device to any child or teen–regardless of how well-behaved they are. So, let me just state my two main points up front:
- Any time you give your kid or teen an Internet-connected device, you should have a plan in place to monitor everything they do on it.
- For many of you, buying these gifts for your kids is simply a bad idea.
So just how easy is it for your child to have access to objectionable content online?
It’s Easy To Find In Their Browser
Traditionally, parents could monitor what sites have been visited on a computer or device by checking the browser history. But a few years ago, a browser feature called “private browsing” emerged. When enabled, private browsing allows a browser to “forget” its website history and anything else that would leave a trace behind. Now this feature is now standard on modern web browsers, including Safari for iOS.
If your child wants to erase his Internet tracks behind him, it is very easy to do, and you’ll be none the wiser.
It’s Easy to Find Inside “Innocent” Apps
It’s hard to imagine that kids would create their own porn or nude and compromising photos to share with each other, but that’s exactly what “sexting” is. Now, there’s even an app for it.
Snapchat is intended to look like just another photo app, but it’s become enormously popular as a tool for sexting because it allows the sender to send a message, photo, or video and specify an amount of time the recipient can view the message before the message deletes itself. When used to send inappropriate content, it’s kind of like a digital peep show.
But what many teens don’t realize is that anyone can take a screenshot of that photo by pressing the Home and sleep/wake button on their iDevice simultaneously. Now, that content that was intended to be ephemeral has been captured permanently and can be shared like any other photo. Snapchat created an in-app warning to inform a sender if the receiving party takes a screenshot of the chat, but by then, it’s too late.
How popular is Snapchat? According to TechCrunch, it’s about as popular for sharing images as Instagram and Facebook, combined. Instagram sees about 50 million photos uploaded per day, while Facebook sees about 350 million. Snapchat sees a whopping 400 million photos uploaded per day, and it’s still growing. Recently, there have even been rumors of new funding and even a $3 billion acquisition by Facebook. You can Google more info about Snapchat and sexting than you care to read.
It’s worth noting that Apple has basic parental controls built into iOS that allow you to prevent downloads of apps with certain ratings. But keep in mind that even if your child never downloads an app like Snapchat, they can still receive unwanted content on their device involuntarily if it is sent from contacts by other means.
Even if your child is a well-intentioned Snapchat user, the app is designed to hide the user’s digital footprints. So the app intends to inhibit a parent’s ability to monitor their kids’ conversations. And what mixes better than kids and a lack of accountability?
It’s Easy To Find On Social Networks
Objectionable content abounds on popular social networks like Twitter and Vine. Twitter and Vine both allow obscene content and have no controls whatsoever for foul and inappropriate language. Even though the iOS Twitter app is rated for ages 4 and up, your child can find inappropriate and even pornographic content on Twitter with a simple search.
It’s also worth noting that while hardcore pornography is not allowed on YouTube, inappropriate content is plentiful. It may not be porn, but you won’t want your kid to see Miley Cyrus’ latest videos. And that’s just one example. Beyond sexual content, YouTube has plenty of violent content, including videos of death. And outside of sex, violence, and other objectionable content, YouTube is full of sophomoric foolishness like soda bottle bombs and cinnamon challenges that are just unwise for parents to allow unmonitored access to.
Beware of the seemingly innocuous social networks and video sites. When in doubt, it’s better to know what your child is doing online than to be clueless about it.
It’s Easy to Find In Built-In Browsers
You probably use them all the time without realizing it, but many apps have their own built-in browsers. If you click a link in Twitter, Facebook, and many other apps for iOS, the app will launch its built-in browser to view the link. Because these browsers don’t have the features of traditional browsers, there’s no way to view the browsing history in them, thereby making them just as untraceable as private browsing.
So What’s A Parent To Do?
I’ve also posted a few tips parents can employ to help keep the Internet on a leash, but the reality is that there is no sure-fire way to prevent your kids from being foolish on the Internet except one: to be an educated, active, watchful parent. It’s up to you to take an active, even aggressive role in the digital lives of the children living in your house.
Your responsibility as a parent in a digital age is a big one. Don’t be fooled by those (including your own kids) who would have you believe that your involvement is snooping or an invasion of privacy. Those are lies. You love your kids. Knowing where they go and who they are with is vital to your role of being an effective parent. This is even more true in the digital world, where the places they go and the people they are with can be much less clear and, thereby, far more precarious.