Kids (and us adults too) use tech everywhere now. Part of using that tech is sending and receiving texts. Sometimes way too many texts. While there are many ways to help kids moderate their tech use, some messaging apps bypass these helps. Why do some kids use messaging apps, and how can we keep our kids and teens safe?
Why Do Kids and Teens Use Messaging Apps?
While every phone comes with text and talk built-in, there are still some compelling reasons that kids or teens (and even adults) have for using another messaging app to talk with friends, family, and classmates. This past year has led to a lot of students using a variety of apps for school alone. And school is a great reason to use an app (maybe the best besides talking to Mom), but that’s not the only reason. While some phone plans include unlimited talk and text, there are plans that don’t. Kids and teens might get a third-party messaging app to circumvent the built-in limits on minutes by using Wifi or data instead.
Additionally, traditional texting interfaces can be pretty bland. Some kids get messaging apps because of extra features like filters, games, or more expressive emojis. A friend group might all get the same messaging app so they can talk to each other in one place. There are also some people that might like additional privacy from their plan carrier. Unfortunately, some kids and teens get messaging apps so they can get around parent supervision.
One risk of messaging apps comes from the apps your kids download themselves, away from your watchful eye. These include any risky apps (more on that below) or disguised apps. There are some messaging apps that look like a calculator (even function as a calculator) until a certain pin is entered. From there, it works as a messaging app. These aren’t the only kinds of hidden messaging apps to be aware of. Some look like games, news apps, or the weather apps. While these apps might seem safe to your kids because they are hidden from you, they usually don’t have safety features to keep kids safe from hackers, predators, or the app developers themselves.
Even some mainstream apps can be dangerous for surprising reasons. In fact, some of these messaging apps can be included in the list of the most dangerous apps for teens.
Most Dangerous Apps for Teens
Kik, Whisper, Ask.fm, Snapchat, and Bigo Live are dangerous for different but related reasons. While each of these apps have concerning features that we’ll break down, it’s important for us as parents to recognize that there are thousands of messaging apps that can be potentially dangerous for our kids. It’s impossible to list them all here. That being said, let’s look at some of the top most dangerous apps for teens and what sets them apart from the rest.
Kik is a messaging app that lets kids send group or private messages. Despite the app having an age limit of 17+, kids and teens are still using it frequently. The app has new ownership now which has helped some, but it has a rampant problem with child predators and inappropriate content. Part of this comes from the fact that anyone can sign up using a username instead of a phone number. Why does that matter? If someone, a predator for example, has their account removed for harassment or sexual content, they can instantly make a new account. Messages are automatically deleted from the app after a certain period of time, meaning that parental supervision over messages is harder and potentially impossible.
Whisper is an anonymous messaging app that connects individuals or groups by allowing them to post secret confessions. Users can then reply to those posts (“whispers”). Although the age restriction is17+, again, kids and teens still used the app which led to them encountering dangerous individuals through anonymous messaging. It also tracks and includes the user’s location in posts. This feature is supposed to let users feel connected with people nearby but it actually makes it easier for predators to reach children. Reviews of the app are flooded with people pointing out the problems with it. Best to keep kids far away from it.
ASKfm is both an app and a website. Users set up a profile and then can ask their own questions and answer questions posted by other users on the site. It allows for anonymous questioning that can then be answered through text, image, or video. Though the app is rated for ages 12+, it’s not even safe for teens let alone the kids younger than twelve who use the app.
Like with the other messaging apps that allow for anonymous users or input, the app is unsafe for kids because of potential harassment or even predators. Cyberbullying also thrives on this app. This Q&A platform, like Whisper, also carries the risk of kids posting overly personal information where anyone on the site/app can see. The difference between the two apps is that while on Whisper everyone is anonymous, on ASKfm the user has a public profile. The platform now has new ownership that is working to make it safer, but safety features can be bypassed.
You may have heard of Snapchat because of its viral popularity, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. On this app, kids can private message, send pictures/videos, and make public posts. Unfortunately, these messages are automatically deleted from the app after a set period of time or after being viewed by the recipient. Not only does this make monitoring activity on your kid’s phone impossible, it also gives your child a false sense of security. The pictures they send to others are not always deleted from the receiver’s phone. Recipients can take screenshots or download the images they are sent. So while your child might feel like it’s safe to sext or send inappropriate content, it can still have devastating consequences.
Discord is an app (also available for browser) that lets users talk and chat while they play games. It’s user agreement is for 13+ but there isn’t much in ways of age verification to prevent kids from using it too. On the surface, it doesn’t sound dangerous, but the danger comes from multifacets. The app works, in part, like a chat room. Kids can join different servers and chat with adult strangers or interact with adult content. This has created a culture of cyberbullying and crass language on the app.
These apps are risky even for a responsible adult, and because your kids are just starting to understand cyber safety, you’ll need to teach them why these apps are harmful. Any app can be dangerous, so make sure you educate your kids on how to be safe online and the dangers they can come in contact with.
If your child is going to use a messaging app, look up a parental review for the app and see if the pros outweigh the cons. Use this article to help guide your choice as well.
Now let’s look at what makes a messaging app safe.
Top 5 Best Safe Messaging Apps
What makes a messaging app safe? Let’s look at some of the top apps and then break down what you should look for in the ideal messaging app for kids.
- Messenger Kids
Messenger Kids was created by Facebook as a child safe messaging app designed specifically for children. They worked to make the app comply with COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act), appeal to children, and give parents control. These features include time limits, no ability to hide or delete messages, and parent-approved contacts. Like with all messaging apps, or texting in general, there are still risks of cyberbullying and unwanted content, but the safety features are impressive.
- JusTalk Kids
JusTalk Kids is an app created for kids and modeled after their original app, JusTalk. The app is passcode protected with no in-app purchases, and parents vet contacts before their children can chat. It’s important to be aware that the app doesn’t require a phone number in order to work. While this lets you set up an account for your child easily, it also allows predators to set up multiple accounts.
- Fennec Messenger
Fennec Messenger is designed for kids and family. This app makes sure only certain contacts can reach your children, letting you block others. You can use the parental app to view messages sent as well as time limits on when your child can use the app. It also includes features like photo sharing, voice messages, doodles, and stickers. The app needs Wifi to work, but it does allow you to create an account without a service plan or phone number. Like with JusTalk Kids, this app also lets strangers create accounts freely, so watch out for any unknown contacts added by your child.
- Stars Messenger
Stars has a lot of the same features that Fennec Messenger or JusTalk Kids have, but what sets them apart is their contacts feature. They use what they call a “Star Pin,” an auto generated code that you can rest at any time. In order for anyone to chat, they need both the username and Star Pin to add contacts. This double layer of security limits who can contact your children. Features also include group messaging, emoticons, and multimedia messages.
- Google Hangouts
Google created Family Link, which allows a parent to set up an account for their kids or teens. Through this, you can create a safe messaging experience on Google Hangouts. You can set up privacy features such as “can’t send me invitations” to keep strangers from contacting your child. You can also view entire chat logs. Unfortunately, the app isn’t designed for children, which makes it less appealing to them
Kids messaging apps, on the most basic level, need to be a place where kids can only connect with specific contacts, are blocked from interacting with strangers, and aren’t able to delete messages. Those aren’t the only features to be aware of. You need to make sure that your child’s messages are safe from hackers, cyberbullies, or their own inexperience. A first thing to look at when finding a safe messaging app is to see if it uses end-to-end encryption.
What Is End-to-End Encryption?
Can messaging apps be hacked? Anything sent online has the risk of being intercepted or hacked. A way to avoid that is through end-to-end encryption. It encrypts the message on the sender’s end so only the receiver can decrypt it. This means no one else can intercept the message and view it—including the service provider, the app development team, or a third party of any kind.
The alternative is encryption-in-transit, which encrypts the message on both the sender and receiver’s end but makes a stop off at the server where it is decrypted and encrypted again before it continues its trip. Encryption-in-transit is not as secure as end-to-end encryption and some providers claim to offer end-to-end while actually using encryption-in-transit.
Troomi Does It Better.
When it comes to our kids and message privacy, Troomi has added another layer of protection. They use HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol security), which is the primary protocol for sending data between a website and web browser. Messages are encrypted, like with end-to-end, but another encryption protocol called TLS (transfer layer security) is also used. Thus they have two different keys to encrypt/decrypt communications.
In short, Troomi messages are twice as secure. Their software and military-grade security help you as parents to keep your kids safe from predators or others going after their information.
Troomi phones are designed to keep kids and teens safe but also to teach them skills and responsibility associated with modern tech use.
Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe with Messaging Apps
When you do sit down and pick out a messaging app for kids, look at what privacy features are included. Parental control portals are also essential. Make sure messages aren’t automatically deleted, or better yet, can’t be deleted. Many parents have reviewed messaging apps, so be sure to look up what others parents have said about your pick. And if you want total peace of mind with a secure device that includes safelisting, military-grade security, and KidSmart Apps, check out Troomi for a device right for your family.