With the new school year firmly upon us, it's a great time to reflect on the lives of our children and the type of year they will have, both at school and online. Every summer kids spend just a little more time exploring new online sites and new apps that become the hot topic for the upcoming school year. And this year is no different.
So, what's hot? Apps based on anonymity, where kids and adults can explore questions that can be asked or answered anonymously, are rising in popularity. You may have overheard your own kids chatting about them -- Secret, Whisper, YikYak and Ask.fm -- to name just a few. Check out this guide for an overall summary of anonymous apps.
And as soon as one says "anonymous," some may react with the "oh, oh, that's not good."
But, here's the bottom line: anonymity has been part of humanity for centuries and is actually party of our societal DNA. Societal laws are often enforced through anonymous tips; "Dear Abby" is considered the greatest advice column of all time because we could ask questions anonymously. Therapists succeed in getting clients to talk because they keep their patients' identities confidential. For a great read on this, see Larry Magid's article here.
All that said, just like in the physical world, some may want to use the veil of anonymity as a way to hurt others. We've seen this happen through the use of some of these apps to bully others. Recently, the companies behind these platforms have started to step up to the challenge by proactively taking steps to prevent abuse. Most recently, Ask.com (a client of SSP Blue) acquired Ask.fm and immediately put a multi-pronged safety strategy in place, including appointing a Chief Trust & Safety Officer and investing millions of dollars into proactive moderation, content review and better response mechanisms to reports of abuse.
As parents, the return to school is a great time to think about these challenges and how to empower your kids to handle them. In the physical world, we pride ourselves on being "lean forward parents" who are consistently diligent about keeping our kids out of trouble and out of harm's way. Yet, online it's tempting to fall into the trap of being "lean back parents" who throw our hands in the air and hope someone steps in to help.
The lack of understanding of the technology that drives the online world is likely the single most common reason why parents tend to shy away from thinking they can keep their kids safe online. Anonymous apps may be new, but the safety lessons are the same. Even online, you can be a lean forward parent.
Here are a few tips to guide you:
1. You've taught your kids to know when to say no and when to say yes. The same is true online. Help them understand that they always have the power to say no and the right to say yes. They can say no to posting an answer that was hurtful, and they can say yes to blocking and reporting such a person.
2. Your kids get excited when they get to teach you a thing or two. The same holds true about the online world. Hold a technology learning class every week where you are the student and your child is the teacher. Learn about how anonymous apps work and in the process, ask questions about safety and privacy. You'll be surprised at how much your kids know how to take protect themselves and to take care of their peers.
3. Ask your kids to set you up online. They can install the coolest new apps and show you how to use them. You can ask them to show you how the privacy settings work and how to report problem users.
4. Kids think of the online and offline worlds as one and the same. Keep reminding your kids the importance of being respectful to others, keeping up a good reputation with their peers, helping friends in need and getting help from trusted friends and adults. If they do this offline, they will do it online.
5. Every time you see something new online, try to find an equivalent offline. You'll find the safety lessons will be quite similar.
Lean forward and have a great year.