This Is the Real Problem with “Bad” Apps. (*It’s Not What You Think.)

apps video games safety
Image via Galit Breen

My Facebook group is ablaze in worries. Here’s the 411: Iain Morrison, a concerned father posted a disgusted, and I’m sure scared, Facebook post about Roblox, an iPad game designed for kids to create adventures, have fun, and learn in a 3D environment.

So what went wrong?

Morrison signed into the game as his 8-year-old son and was almost immediately sexually propositioned by more than one person.

Like you, I cringed reading this story.

The online world provides our kids with a breathtaking number of learning and fun opportunities, like Roblox.

But this absolutely means that so much of the online world gets access to our kids.

And this feels scary.

I agree—100%—that something has to be done about situations like this; they’re showing up in my news feeds much too often.

But the solution that I have in mind is not what you think.

I hope that you hear me out here!

First of all …

How many apps can we replace Roblox with and create the all-too-familiar “this is a bad app” headline?

Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been under fire.

Instagram “Stories” have, too.

WhatsApp is fully encrypted, which can be problematic for both safety and kindness.

YouTube video commenters are definitely not vetted.

And this list is certainly not exhaustive!

So what’s my point, right?

Putting app after app (after app) on the “bad” list isn’t the answer here.

Here’s why.

When the next “it” app becomes popular, it, too, will be in the hot seat for one of two reasons.

Either more kids using it means more mistakes are being made on it or more awful people with awful intentions will be drawn to it.

We can’t control these facts.

What we can control, however, is what we teach our kids.

My research has shown that kids who are taught the underlying skills that are necessary to be safe and wise online can use any app well.

They are less vulnerable than kids who are not taught these skills.

When our Digital Education is mired in only monitoring and app vetting, we lose out on the opportunity to teach our kids they need to make safe and wise choices while they are using apps and online games.

This is so important to keep in mind!

Because what happens when your kids are using unmonitored devices? Like their friend’s, for example.

If they experience something negative or scary, they won’t have the skills they need to cope with what they experience.

And most importantly, they won’t know that they can – and should – come talk to you about what they experience.

They might not even know that what’s really going on as it’s happening.

And what Morrison wrote in his Facebook post is 100% true.

Bad people are drawn to good apps made for kids and some of these people will proposition children, others will “groom” kids and try to convince them to connect on other, perhaps unmonitored, devices, and still others will pretend to be a kid themselves and then do all of the above.

So what’s a parent to do?

Talk to your kids.

I know that this advice isn’t particularly high-tech or fancy sounding, but I’m sharing it because it works.

Teach your kids the skills they need to make safe and wise choices online.

I truly believe that kids who are taught these skills can use any app well. 

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Some conversations to have with your kids include:

  1. [This is the most important one] When and how to come talk to you about what they’re experiencing. Being asked to chat outside of the app or game that you’re on is a red flag to, at the very least, ask why and every time while your kids are still learning the skills they need, to come and ask you for permission before doing this.
  2. Being asked a question or told something that doesn’t make sense to them or feels uncomfortable to them is a time to “Screen cap and tell.” I would love to see this phrase become the modern day version of, “Stop, drop, and roll.” Oftentimes our kids “wait and see” what happens and by the time they decide they’d like to ask for help, the person on the other side of the screen has deleted their message or their video has disappeared, for examples.
  3. Putting their other app handles, phone numbers, or locations in their bio lines and descriptions is a “no.”
  4. Changing the privacy settings that you’ve approved of is a “no” as well.

There are two key elements to effectively having these conversations with your kids.

The first is that you’ll have to explain to your kids—at least on a surface level—why you’re setting these expectations.

I have found the best way to do this is to share something that has happened in the media as a springboard for the conversation.

If you feel like your child could handle this conversation, for example, you could share Morrison’s experience with them.

Something like, “He logged on as his kids and all of these adults started talking to him inappropriately” might be enough for your kids.

Remember that the more they know, the safer they’ll actually be. There’s a balance here between giving them just enough information to start the conversation without scaring them.

The second key to this is that in the beginning, it’s so important to do exactly what Morrison did:

Get to know the apps your kids are interested in using. If your kids don’t have a lot of app access yet, a great way to manage this is to learn one app together at a time.

You do not have to chase and learn every single app for the rest of their lives.

But in the beginning, while they are learning to discern what’s safe and what’s not, it’s best to be their soft landing.

Teaching your kids the underlying skills they need to be safe and wise online with or without you, on a monitored device or an unmonitored one, is the best possible thing that you can do for your digital kids.

Because while you can’t keep them safe at all times, you can do everything you can to teach them how to make safe choices.

For more information on getting started with teaching your digital kids what they need to know, check out my checklist for moms of new(ish) digital kids RIGHT HERE. 

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Galit Breen is the author of Kindness Wins, a simple, no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online; the TEDx Talk, “Raising a digital kid without having been one”; the online courses Boom, Done Digital Parenting™ and Raise Your Digital Kid™; and the Facebook group The Savvy Parents Club. You can get her parents’ checklist for moms of new(ish) digital kids RIGHT HERE.

What do you think?

This Is the Real Problem with “Bad” Apps. (*It’s Not What You Think.)

Galit Breen is the author of Kindness Wins, a simple no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online. She has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in human development and was a classroom and reading teacher for ten years. In 2009, she launched a career as a freelance writer entrenched in social media. Since then, her work has been featured in various online magazines including Brain, Child, The Huffington Post, TIME, and xoJane. Breen lives in Minnesota with her h ... More

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