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Dangerous apps keep parents on edge

By Jill Penley
Freelance Writer

While the names Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Tumblr have become somewhat familiar in the past few years, parents are hard pressed to keep up with all the new social media applications currently being frequented by teens, and in many cases, children. If parents are oblivious to the likes of Kik, Snapchat, WeChat, and TikTok, the children in their care may be at risk of serious harm. Police departments across the country, in fact, are reminding parents about potentially dangerous apps that could be on their child’s phone.

For example, TikTok, which originated in China, has become an extremely popular app. Videos of kids lip-syncing to songs? Sounds innocent enough. But, in an app where over 13 million videos are uploaded a day, it’s impossible for parents to filter out all the inappropriate or dangerous content. A technology expert says the danger with most apps is not what is on the surface of the app but inside the message threads themselves.

TikTok, fact, has also been the subject of troubling reports about its dark side, which is reportedly filled with child predators, devious algorithms, dark patterns, and teens bullying and harassing one another. There have been documented instances of children being groomed by pedophiles and explicit or disturbing content being prevalent on the app.

Just this month, Mark Avery Pickel, a former elementary school principal from Cleveland, Tn., was arrested and is facing child sex charges after being caught in a joint sting by the Chattanooga police and the FBI. Pickel, interacting with an undercover investigator through the instant messaging app, Kik, was charged with transportation of child pornography in interstate commerce, interstate travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a minor, and coercion and enticement of a minor.

What can be done? We live in a world full of Apps! While some are harmless, others pose threats. Popular apps can make children easy targets for sexual predators, or may even expose them to explicit, unfiltered content.

Communication is extremely important. Parents/guardians should speak candidly and determine which apps have been downloaded, how they work and whether their child or teen has experienced any issues on them, such as cyberbullying or contact from strangers. It should never be assumed an “age limit” on an app makes it restrictive as a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of teens say that they have lied about their age to gain access to a site or create an account.

Some preventative measures concerned parents — or the users themselves — can take include setting accounts to private, turning off comments, hiding the account from search, disabling downloads, disallowing reactions and restricting an account from receiving messages, but even all this may not be enough.

Knowledge is power. Anyone with children and teens should research all apps their children are accessing and keep an eye on what they are doing on electronic devices.Some may argue this is a breach of privacy, but wouldn’t we rather be labeled an overprotective parent than be highlighted on the evening news begging for our child’s safe return?