With millions of different phone applications available to download, it can feel impossible to know how safe each app on your child’s device is.
But there are a few applications that Knoxville police Lt. Warren Hamlin says are causing the most problems.
“The most things we see are dealing with Facebook, Kik and Snapchat,” said Hamlin, part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Unit within the Knoxville Police Department. “These are the three apps we get the most tips about that are involved with adults trying to come into contact with children.”
The ICAC Unit receives about 300-400 tips regarding children's internet safety every month, according to Hamlin.
“The biggest issue is that when kids are using these apps, they tend to trust anybody, and they don’t always know who they are talking to,” said Hamlin. “It’s fairly easy for criminals to create a fake profile and act like they are another kid or a friend.”
Criminals often then begin asking for nude and risque photos, and things go downhill from there. If sent, criminals often use these photos to “sexploit” children, a form of blackmail in which sexual information or images are used to extort sexual favors from the victim.
“Most children are afraid they are going to get in trouble and are hesitant to tell a parent, teacher or authority figure,” said Hamlin. “Eventually, kids will usually tell someone, but sometimes it can be far down the line.”
Screenshot of social media apps that you may want to be wary of. (Photo: Rebecca Wright/News Sentinel)
Facebook, Kik and Snapchat, as well as other apps like Mappen, use your phone’s location both while you are using the app and also in the background, and can share it with other users.
Location services can be great for parents who want to know where their child is. It also helps law enforcement find missing children and teens. However, parents might not feel comfortable knowing that other people can see where their child is as well.
Adults are not the only ones using these manipulative tactics.
“Unfortunately, there are situations where kids are doing this to other kids,” said Hamlin. “In particular, high school kids are doing this to other high school students.”
The ICAC unit does not directly deal with cyberbullying when it does not involve sexual exploitation, but student-to-student bullying often happens through social media.
Michelle Pearl Black, a University of Tennessee doctoral student in the psychology department, conducted a study with 77 students at a Southeastern Tennessee city middle and high school in 2014. She found that of these participants, about a third of them admitted to participating in cyberbullying, and about a quarter claimed they were victims of cyberbullying in their lifetime. Of this sample, more than 70 percent used social media networking sites.
"We need to be mindful of students’ internet use and provide guidance for it, as it may put students at risk for cyberbullying," Black said in the study.
Cyberbullying can happen on almost all social media platforms and applications. Some platforms, such as Ask.fm, allow users to submit questions and comments anonymously and openly. This anonymous feature allows bullies to remain nameless.
Knoxville and Knox County residents can report cyberbullying to either the Knoxville Police Department or the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
Communication is key
To keep children safe online, communication is key, according to Hamlin.
“(Parents) need to start talking to (children) early and often about not only respecting others but also having respect for themselves," said Hamlin.
Black's study says that "parental monitoring of internet use may be an important factor in reducing bullying, cyberbullying and victimization."
Some parents may fear being perceived as a “helicopter parent” while monitoring their children’s social media, but watching out for kids online doesn’t have to be too intrusive.
“Parents have to be willing to monitor their social media activity to an extent. Help (children) set privacy settings and make sure they are only friends with people they actually know,” says Hamlin.
On Apple iPhones, parents can turn on “Restrictions,” which can block or limit specific apps and features on their child’s device. Parents can restrict location services on certain applications, prevent children from downloading applications before they review the app, disable camera use and more.
Monitoring children’s app use isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, according to Hamlin.
“My advice is to be a parent. You need to know what your children are up to, even online.”
Mobile apps to watch
Here are a few apps that parents might want to monitor and check their children's settings.
- Facebook: Many parents are probably familiar with this application. Facebook allows users to add, remove, and block friends, share their location with their friends and the public, and share photos both privately and publicly.
- Snapchat: This application allows users to send photos to each other for a set amount of time. Once the time runs out, the picture “disappears.” Receiving users can screenshot the photo and send a notification to the sender. Users can block and remove users, send users their location and request locations from other users. Snapchat can be used to send risque, embarrassing and inappropriate photos to users.
- Kik: Kik is a free instant messaging mobile app in which users can connect with each other without providing their telephone number, which preserves anonymity. It has been used in a number of incidents of child exploitation, according to Knoxville police.
- Tinder: Tinder is an online dating app that allows users to meet up with people in their area. Users link their profile to their Facebook account, post a few photos of themselves with a short description, and then set their profile to public. Users then find each other, can have conversations and potentially meet up if interested. Users shouldn’t be younger than 18, but falsifying your age online isn’t uncommon.
- Ask.fm: This application and website allows users to ask each other questions, both openly and anonymously. Ask.fm has been in the news frequently because of users cyberbullying each other.
- Mappen: Mappen is a relatively new social media application that allows users to share their location so their friends can meet up with them or see where they are. The application allows users to add friends by username, QR code and phone number. The app is always tracking your location, even when you don't have it open.