Recent news has highlighted something we all knew: the internet can be a bad, bad place. But then a kids’ app got thrown into the mix of horrifying news, and now everyone’s wondering: just how safe are apps for kids?

In Case You Missed the Back-Story

Moms are voicing legitimate fears after two major scandals broke in recent weeks. In one, a sexual predator masquerading as Justin Bieber persuaded underage girls to send him nude pics. Some of them were used to create a kind of child porn montage, and reports say that the man even blackmailed some of the girls into meeting him in person. The criminal, who faces over 900 child-sex charges used Facebook, Skype and a seemingly innocent music app to communicate with his victims.

The other scandal could affect your kids when you least expect it: when they are watching what looks like popular kids’ cartoons. A mother using the YouTube Kids app was horrified to find that she had given an imitation Peppa Pig video depicted horrifying scenes of a child being tortured by a dentist to her child to watch. YouTube admitted that although it filtered content for YouTube Kids, no filter can be 100 percent effective.

Interestingly, the maker of the Peppa Pig knockoffs went public, blaming parents for insufficient vigilance. But what I want to know is how moms are supposed to tell the difference between the real and the fake Peppa?

Social Media? It’s Your Call, But…

When you or anyone else has a social media profile, you are open to being contacted by unsavory types. An adult might question a friend request from “Justin Bieber,” but a child is likely to take it at face value. Then there’s social media bullying, added peer pressure, and more.

Facebook doesn’t allow users younger than 13 to sign up, but many parents will consent to children using social media, even helping to enter a false date of birth. Webwise says that parents need to make the call. If your children are old enough to go to town on their own, then perhaps they are “streetwise” enough to use social media.

I’m not so sure whether a 13-year-old will be mature enough to handle some of the bad things we find on social media. Can children of 13 place social media in context? Even some adults have difficulty with that. As for being streetwise and web wise, they aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Although opinions differ, the most common recommendation is to use age-appropriate platforms like LegoLife and Kudos, and even then, to retain access, monitor carefully, and restrict contacts to people kids know in real life.

App Appropriate?

I think the biggest problem with YouTube is that ANYONE can post content. Nobody at YouTube actually watches every single video that’s posted. Instead, algorithms are used to classify content. As we’ve seen, an algorithm can decide that a video is about a popular kids’ cartoon character and therefore appropriate for kids even when it’s a knockoff full of violent and disturbing content.

YouTube Kids might be a good way to find real kids’ entertainment, but Mom or Dad will have to handle the quality control – and that means watching the whole video first.

COPPA compliance is usually a good pointer. To be compliant, an app can’t just be an open network. That was the problem with Muscal.ly – and it was the source of many of the issues that should have made the app unsuitable for any kid to use. These included:

  • Access to obscene song lyrics
  • Pornography and graphic content posted by users.
  • Cyberbullying in comments fields.
  • Fake user accounts.
  • Live streaming of user content.

An online watchdog reported these issues back in September last year. The app was rated “unsafe for kids” and it would certainly never have achieved COPPA compliance with that laundry list!

COPPA compliance is a good thing, and most of the time, it’s a good indication of online safety, but as we saw with YouTube, a “compliant” app could be flawed. Nothing can replace parental supervision.

What Makes a Kids’ App Safe?

The key phrase here is “fully curated, traceable content.” By “fully curated” I mean that it’s controlled by human beings, not algorithms, and I also feel that more than one person should be making the judgment calls. That’s why every story on the Miss Gadish app is reviewed by educators and child psychologists. We don’t just want our content to be safe for kids; we also want it to be beneficial.

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Live chat is another thorny issue. Many online games feature chat within gaming communities. You can’t control what goes on in live chat. Worse still, PC Advisor reports that kids trust people they meet through online games and 33 percent of them say their parents don’t know what they’re playing or who they’re talking to. The risks are apparent. Nearly a quarter of kids gaming online admitted that they had received inappropriate or disturbing messages.

So in line with COPPA, I’d say that no live chat interaction and no messaging platform would be among the things to look out for. Who’s to say that a perfectly ordinary app can’t become a sick person’s way of getting at kids?

To sum up, I’d say that a safe kids’ app is closely controlled by a group of responsible adults, is meant for kids not adults, and eliminates potential contact from strangers altogether.

Sooner or Later, Kids Will go Online

At some point, you are going to allow kids to go solo online. When you do so will be based on your knowledge of your child. But even the savviest youngster can benefit from guidance, information, and advice. Filters are only as good as the software behind them. Use them, but supervise internet and app use closely all the same.

When kids reach their early teens, mom or dad sitting beside them as they work or play will be less welcome, but we can still equip kids to handle the dangers of the internet:

  • Don’t allow them to use devices in private.
  • Talk about the dangers of being online including abuse, bullying, and identity theft.
  • Ask them to be open about disturbing content they may have come across.
  • Encourage them to avoid mixing with strangers online and ask them to report any scary or worrying messages they may receive.
  • Set boundaries as to what may and may not be done online.
  • Tell kids that any app downloads must be approved by mom or dad.
  • Use filters and parental control software, but remember they aren’t perfect.
  • Guard your family’s privacy. Your privacy settings must be up to scratch – but remember, if you share a pic of your kid, so can someone in your network, and their privacy settings may not be as good as yours.

Kids’ Apps and Online Safety: The Bottom Line

Just as we keep our children safe at home and school, we also need to keep them safe online. Limited screen-time, carefully vetted apps, and parental oversight are indispensable. That doesn’t mean you can’t sit your child down with a tablet and a good app, but it does mean you need to know you can trust the app they’re using.

At Miss Gadish, we have gone the extra mile to create a safe place for kids to learn and play. There are other apps that are doing sterling work too. Try apps for yourself before giving them to kids. If you identify risks, you know what to do. If it’s safe, allow your kids to have fun with technology – but use your common sense and be on guard whenever something new enters the picture.