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Diana Graber Headshot

When Apps Get a Bad Rap

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Westend61 via Getty Images
Westend61 via Getty Images

You know their names. The "apps" that kids love to use and parents are warned to fear: Ask.fm, Vine, Kik and Snapchat make it to the top of the list for their reputations as harbingers of porn and cyberbullying. In fact, at a recent workshop on "Youth and Technology" at our local high school, a tech expert advised us to go home and immediately remove or filter these offending apps from our kids' phones because "nothing good ever happens on them."

I don't know about you, but restricting my kids from something they are already using or doing, especially without solid evidence of nefarious behavior on their part, is a parenting strategy that hasn't worked out particularly well for me. Since they really enjoy using some of these apps to socialize and keep in touch with their friends, his advice was sure to backfire. It would drive them further into the dark regions of cyberspace, to a place and under an alias I would never find.

A recent study conducted by the computer security firm McAfee confirms my fears. It finds that 61% of teens feel confident that they know how to hide what they do online from parents and 71% of teens have actually done something to hide their online behavior.

Clearly, I would have to find a different approach. So I turned to author, parent advocate and family internet safety advocate Sue Scheff for her advice. According to Sue, "Kids are more savvy than any filtering equipment or software; they're going to get around it." Her recommendation is to establish trust and communication early on.

I decided to try communication.

I asked my 15-year old about Ask.fm, the anonymous question and answer platform used regularly by lots of young people who love it for its anonymous nature. Ask.fm has received lots of media attention recently for its possible link to a handful of suicides. While this is certainly troubling, what I learned by talking to my daughter is that her school's anti-tobacco club is considering using the site to answer kids questions about smoking and about the growing and concerning use of "e-cigs." They plan to take advantage of the anonymous nature of the app to give kids a "safe" place to share information with their peers.

We also talked about Snapchat, the app that has earned a reputation as a deliverer of pornographic videos that self-destruct after 10 seconds. Yet, as my daughter reminded me, this past Christmas, she and her sister shared some heartwarming moments with my 80-plus-year-old parents by exchanging short, funny videos with them. Snapchat's ease of use appealed to my parents, who we couldn't be with on Christmas, and it provided an intimacy that a telephone call or even a text message could not.

That's not to say that bad things don't happen on these "apps." But the point is, let's not shoot the messenger because, sure as the dawn, another messenger is going to come along to take its place. So instead, let's take Sue's advice and start "communicating." You know -- that thing we used to do face-to-face.

And then, set some ground rules. Not for our children, but for us. These three simple rules will keep kids safer than any filtering software or device:

1. Know thy enemy. A good rule of thumb is to get to know the "apps" your kids are using. The first thing you'll learn when signing up is that nearly all restrict membership to those who are at least 13 years of age. In addition, most also ban obscene, vulgar, and abusive chatter.

2. Friend or follow your child. Presumably you know where your child goes to school and who their closest friends are, right? There is absolutely no reason not to know this same kind of information when kids are online. In fact, these "apps" and social media in general can be a parent's best friend by revealing a wealth of information about whom they are interacting with and what they are talking about, so take advantage!

3. Know their passwords. Make it a rule of thumb to know your child's passwords. Sure, there may be some pushback on this, but if you pay the mobile phone bill, technically, that phone is yours and knowing how to access their account is a smart safety measure. It's also a chance for you both learn how to make and manage safe and strong passwords.

It's App-solutely (excuse the pun) vital to know what your kids are up to, and who knows? You might just have a little fun too.