Smart device apps may foster bad choices
As students return to the classroom, it's a good time to consider the apps they are using on their smart devices. Some of them can be dangerous, according to local law enforcement officers.
"This is a problem nationwide, and it is absolutely a problem in Minnesota," said Ryan Olson, detective with the Dakota County Electronic Crimes Task Force in Hastings.
Jason Nurnberg, Goodhue County Sheriff's Office deputy and Kenyon-Wanamingo school resource officer, said that while many students use apps and devices responsibly, "There are kids misusing apps on their smart devices, but we also have to remember that some of the kids are not misusing it on purpose, may not have been educated on correct use of the app, or are not aware of the dangers that may come with the app."
The Minnesota Sheriff's Association recently released a graphic called "10 Apps All Parents Should Know About." It gives a brief description of each app and a comment on why the app may be dangerous for kids.
A quick internet search reveals many such lists, sponsored by media sources, parent groups, educational institutions, and law enforcement agencies. The challenge for parents is that the apps described in these lists, like all things digital, are constantly evolving.
"There are many lists of dangerous apps," Olson said, "but the problem is, those lists will change by next week."
While each of the lists contains different apps, and there are far too many apps to discuss in a single article, there are some apps that make almost all the lists.
Four dangerous apps
Snapchat: A recent survey by the Associated Press noted that 75 percent of teens are using this app. Snapchat allows a user to send a photo or video which is accessible to a viewer for a limited time. The app claims that the image disappears after that time, however, Felicia Alvarez, writing on crosswalk.com, warned that "nothing sent over the internet disappears. There are always ways to retrieve and capture those images."
"Snapchat promises kids that photos and videos will disappear after being viewed," Deputy Nurnberg said. "I have had many dealings with this one because of this promise, but the photos are screenshot and come back to get them in trouble."
Ann Brenoff of The Huffington Post stated that the appeal of Snapchat for many users is sexting. They warn that even though users often believe their photos vanish, "It's actually pretty easy to recover a Snap, take a screenshot of it and share it with others — and by others, we mean porn sites."
Hayley Krischer in The New York Times reported that last year Snapchat added a mapping feature that uses an "Actionmoji" to share the user's exact location with viewers.
KiK: This is a texting service that allows users to send messages and pictures without them being recorded in the phone history. Alvarez explained that this makes it easy for children to talk to strangers because KiK "bypasses the wireless providers' short message services."
"KiK does not offer any parental controls and there is no way of authenticating users, thus making it easy for sexual predators to use the app to interact with minors," Brenoff reported. "Unfortunately, the term 'sext buddy' has been replaced with 'KiK buddy.'"
"KiK allows anyone to contact your kids or directly message them," Nurnberg said. "It is very hard to know who is real and who is a predator. Also, it is a Canadian app making it harder to follow up for (U.S.) law enforcement."
Ask.FM: This app is designed to allow anyone in the world to ask the user questions about anything. The Minnesota Sheriff's Association graphic stated that many of the users of this app had experienced cyber bullying.
"This is one of the most popular social networking sites that is almost exclusively used by kids," said Brenoff. "It is a Q&A site where users can ask other users questions anonymously. The problem is that kids sometimes target one person, and the questions get nasty. It is cyberbullying with no chance of ever getting caught."
Tinder: Users post their own pictures, then scroll through the photos of others. If they find a photo of someone they think is attractive, they "flag" the photo. If that person flags them in return, the app lets them contact each other.
"Tinder is a popular app used for hooking-up and dating that allows users to 'rate' profiles and locate hookups via GPS tracking," Brenoff said. "It is too easy for adults and minors to find one another. And the rating system can be used for cyber-bullying; a group of kids can target another kid and intentionally make his/her rating go down."
What to do
Preventing problems with smart device apps is not simple. There are even apps such as Poof and Audio Manager which are designed to serve as hiding places for messages, photos, videos, as well as other apps.
One app, called Calculator% appears to be an innocent calculator, but inside is essentially a safe deposit box for any items a student might want to hide.
"Parents should also be aware of apps that are designed to look like a calculator or other non-harmful apps," Nurnberg said. "They can be used to keep and hide photos and videos without parents knowing."
Olson said he has seen kids who have two passwords. "One is for the pictures they want to hide, and one is for the pictures of the family dog," he said. "They can be very creative, so parents need to get creative, too, about protecting them."
"There are many sites that will show you how to tell if your kids may be using fake usernames or other login accounts for social media sites, and also how to tell if they may have a secret photo storage on their device," Nurnberg said.
Olson said the best way to help with this problem is for the parents to control the passwords. Then, when a child or teen wants a new app, the parents can discuss the app with the student and decide if it is appropriate or not.
"Smart devices are here to stay, so we need to educate kids on proper use of them and what to do if they find something that is concerning on the web," Nurnberg said. "Parents need to sit down with their kids and let them know what is expected. Also they need to let kids know what should not be posted on the web, things like date of birth, phone numbers, and addresses."
Nurnberg said students have been kicked out of schools or not been accepted to their schools of choice because of information posted on social media. He said it is common for employers to check media sites, and they may not hire people who have posted questionable materials.
"Parents and teens both need to be concerned about harmful sites and their internet fingerprint," he said.
"Though direct communication is always best, and the conversations around online safety and digital citizenship should start long before a kid becomes a teen, there are occasions when parents feel it's necessary to monitor what kids are doing on their devices," wrote Christine Elgersma on commonsensemedia.org.
Monitoring and limiting use
To help with that task of monitoring smart device use, options include apps such as Bark, Limitly, Trackidz, or VISR.
Detective Olson noted that there are routers designed to allow parental control of internet access. Two of those are Koala Safe and Circle With Disney.
"Those routers block adult materials," Olson said. "Also, if a student is late for school, parents can look it up and see they were on YouTube for two hours. It is a good means of oversight."
Having a place to store smart devices can help, according to Olson.
In his own home, he shuts down the router at 8 p.m.
"We leave the devices at the charging station," he said. "They do not go into the bedroom or into the bathroom."
The issue of monitoring the digital activity of a child or teen can be difficult. Alvarez cited Netsmartz.org as a resource with many ideas and tools regarding digital safety.
"Parents can keep up to date on harmful apps by checking internet sites like Netsmartz.org and Commonsensemedia.org which will also review movies and DVDs," Nurnberg said.
Netsmartz.org has a lot of good videos to help parents understand internet and digital app safety, according to Olson.
Olson recommends not giving electronic devices as birthday or Christmas presents.
"If it is a present, it is very hard to take it back," he said. "Give it on another day, and explain that it is technology that must be used appropriately."
Safety trumps privacy
Misuse of smart device apps can lead to serious problems, Olson said. He has investigated cases where people have sent nude photos or explicit conversations to another person, but later the relationship ended.
"Often, when the relationship is over, one person wants to get back at the other and makes those items public," Olson said. "The consequences can be huge."
Olson has investigated many cases, and noted that the effects of misusing smart device apps can be devastating. "There are many cases on record of people committing suicide because of issues like this."
"Remember, your child's safety is more important than their privacy," Alvarez explained. " As a parent, you aren't being nosy by checking their cell phone on a regular basis; you are being responsible."