I recently deleted an app from my daughter’s phone. The app itself was harmless—a fashion game rated for ages 4+. A featured ad, however, involved two women in a suggestive bedroom scene where an unsuspecting husband had just walked in.
Some days I’m tempted to ban electronics altogether, but even my kindergartener uses an iPad at school. I want to prepare my kids to navigate the digital world on their own one day, but I also need to keep in mind that the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties.
My kids have a long way to go till then. I need to know what to do about their digital experiences now.
Thinking about this recently, I came across the words of a parent far wiser than me. In Proverbs 4, Solomon wrote to his son, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life … Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure” (verses 23-26).
As a parent, I want to be vigilant in guarding my children’s hearts. I won’t be able to catch every negative influence, but I want to protect them from what I can. Trust me, I’m no expert. But my limited experience has taught me one thing: Be vigilant in what I allow before their eyes. My kids get one shot at childhood, and I don’t want them to let go of that too soon.
The dirty dozen
I can’t ignore the fact that my children are growing up in a digital world far different from my own childhood. I have to face it head on. As “app doorkeeper,” I do my homework when my daughter asks to download the latest app. While there’s a growing list of what I don’t want on my child’s phone, I thought I’d share a few I’d say no to. Here’s a handy list of 12 I’m calling the “Digital Dirty Dozen.”
1. Calculator% or other hidden audio manager apps
Calculator% was removed from both Apple and Android’s app stores due to involvement in a police investigation in the United Kingdom. But for every app like this that gets deleted another one pops up (just search audio manager, camouflage, or vault apps). It allows users to hide photos and videos within what looks like a calculator (or something similar). With the passcode, the app opens up to reveal the videos, photos, etc., your kids don’t want you to see.
Despite our hopes, it’s unlikely we know everything about our kids. They have secrets, hidden fears, and worries. Apps like this encourage kids to keep these things hidden from the ones who can help. Parents have even reported finding nude photos of other kids in these apps, which is particularly dangerous. Possession of nude photos of a minor (even by a minor) can be considered child pornography, a serious crime with lasting consequences.
Whisper gives users an anonymous forum to “express yourself openly and honestly.” When I looked at local “whispers,” I was disgusted and sad. Posts ranged from people looking to “hook up” (a euphemism for having casual sex or a one-night stand) to others wanting their lives to end.
To make matters worse, this app has a chat feature. While posts are anonymous, you can request to chat with the author of posts you’re interested in. When location is turned on, you can see how many miles other users are from you. This opens the door to child predators. Now, they see more than a hurting, vulnerable child. They see that child is a mere three miles away.
In a nutshell, users send photos or videos (snaps) to friends that “delete” after anywhere from 10 seconds to a day. (I know there’s way more to Snapchat, but that’s the gist of it.) This gives kids a false sense of security that once a snap is deleted it is actually gone, never to be seen again.
Unfortunately, once something goes into the digital realm, it can never truly be deleted. Snapchat was called the “sexting app” when it first gained popularity because users had less fear of photos being spread. It also makes it harder for parents to monitor their child’s use.
This app also includes a map, and thanks to the Discover feature, there’s actually accessible adult content. Entering the correct birthdate helps filter out some, but not all.
4. Tik Tok (formerly music.ly)
If your child had the Music.ly app, they now have Tik Tok. Still fairly new in the U.S., there have been reports in other countries of videos containing self-harm or sexually suggestive material, and the comments section can get ugly.
In private mode, only the creator of the video can view what he or she creates, but in public mode (which is the default setting), anyone can see anything posted. Public mode also opens up messaging.
And then there is the issue of explicit lyrics, which cannot be filtered. When a lot of the users are younger teens and tween, this is a serious concern.
5. Hot or Not
The name really says it all here—users rate others as “hot” or not. Each user’s profile photo is uploaded for the same purpose. If two users mark each other as “hot” they can private message.
The app uses your location to match you up with others in your area. While they claim to keep underage users and adults separate, there’s no way to verify someone is actually under 18. And the message this app sends is a concern—it suggests to young people that it’s okay to judge others based on looks alone.
In this popular app, users ask or answer questions anonymously. Because of the anonymity, it’s no shock Ask.fm has been reported as a top site for cyber bullying.
Just a quick look at this app from the Apple store tells me a little of what I wanted to know: “Rated 12+ for the following: Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References; Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor; Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content and Nudity; Infrequent/Mild Mature/Suggestive Themes; Infrequent/Mild Cartoon or Fantasy Violence.”
Kik is a free messaging app. It seems innocent enough, but the problem is the access it gives predators to children.
And there have been several child predator cases involving Kik. In 2017, after conducting an investigative report with Point Report, Forbes wrote they found “a vast number of child exploitation cases involving the use of Kik, where some of the most appalling material is being shared and young girls and boys are being targeted for grooming.” They went on to say the app, had a “huge child exploitation problem.”
This app used to be called Yellow. After being dubbed “Tinder for teens,” it was rebranded as Yubo.
It allows users to meet strangers in their area of residence. If they see someone they want to connect with, they can chat privately. Despite the fear of meeting up with a “teen” who is actually a 35-year-old man, the app is known for teens using it to “hook up.”
Anytime an app’s tagline is “Chat with Strangers,” parents should be wary. Dubbed “Chatroulette,” Omegle randomly pairs users up for chats. (There’s also a video option). While the connection starts out anonymous, users often share personal info, even moving to other apps to continue conversations (like Kik).
10. Carrot Fit
Fitness is a good thing, right? And Carrot Fit is kind of funny for adults who are trying to motivate themselves to lose weight.
But not if you are an insecure, adolescent female. The app berates the user with insults and electrocutes your avatar for not losing weight. Also watch for apps like Vora that record fasting. Although incredibly dangerous for teens, it seems to be a growing trend to lose weight fast.
I see why kids like this, but it won’t be on my child’s phone anytime soon. Wishbone presents you with two cards; you choose your preference based off the question.
Every few minutes a 30-second ad pops up, some with inappropriate content. Most of the questions are G rated (bucket of nachos or bucket of ice cream?), but not all. There is no way to filter it.
And this is another app used to cyberbully, with some users uploading photos with malicious intent. There have been incidences of parents reporting their children being sent porn and other inappropriate pictures by strangers through direct messaging.
12. Anonymous feedback apps
While they call for honest, constructive feedback, apps like this encourage bullying. TBH (recently cancelled by Facebook), Sayat.me, and Sarahah, are just a few. Users report swearing, cyberbullying, and threats.
Sarahah was pulled by Google and Apple after a mom started a petition to remove the app. She spoke out after her 13-year-old was told to “kill herself.” Unfortunately, you can still register for Sarahah online.
Know what they’re doing
I know this list can sound daunting. The digital world is a scary place to let your children wander, and you should be concerned. But what it really comes down to is this: Know what your kids are doing online.Turn off location tracking. Know their passwords, and have internet safety discussions long before they have a device in their precious hands. Commonsensemedia.org is a great resource for parents. Do your homework.
Even as an adult, I have to ask myself, Am I guarding my heart by what media I consume?I have Philippians 4:8 on my fridge as a reminder for our household: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true … honorable … just … pure … lovely … commendable, if there is any excellence … anything worthy of praise think about these things.”
Teach this same principle to your kids. Teach them how to renew their minds and look away from images that can hurt their hearts and minds.
Here’s the thing—apps have an expiration date. Today’s hot app is tomorrow’s “what was that app called again?” Your kids may be mad today that you took the app away, but a month from now, they won’t remember. They will remember that you loved them enough to care.
Don’t rely on your child’s wisdom and discernment to keep them safe online. That’s your job.
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