Posted Online: Feb. 02, 2013, 5:10 pm
How to shield your kids from risky apps
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By Leslie Meredith
If online posts are tagged #NSFW — not safe for work — they're probably not appropriate for your kids.
Over the past week, Twitter's popular new video-making app Vine became stocked with porn.
Twitter has apologized for the pornographic clip that was included as an editor's pick on the app's homepage stream and has removed the X-rated clip. It also has removed many of the hashtags to make the posts unsearchable.
However, chances are the videos made the round of school lunchrooms before Twitter could clean up the service. But at Twitter and its video service, Vine, that meant adding a warning to say a post may contain possibly sensitive material, along with removing some hashtags.
Twitter does not prohibit pornography as long as it's not used as a profile photo, a header image, background image or violates U.S. law such as photos that involve children.
"Parents just don't have the opportunity to react. These things can happen in the blink of an eye," Joel Holl, CEO of MMGuardian, a mobile monitoring app for parents, said.
Parents and teachers have been caught by surprise with the proliferation of smartphones and apps. More than 30 percent of American teens own a smartphone, and that will reach 100 percent by 2016, according to Pew Research.
"An app goes viral and all the kids are talking about it, but parents may not even know it exists," Holl said. "Parents need some way of screening apps before kids use them."
Tips for parents
You can't control everything your kids do on their smartphones, but a few simple steps will greatly reduce the risk.
- If an app is based on sharing video, it can be a magnet for porn. Apps that let kids send photos or videos that then "disappear" in a few seconds add to the risky nature of an app. The worst are those that connect kids with strangers for video chat.
- Before downloading, read user reviews. You may get a heads up about questionable material.
- Check the app's rating. Apple has a no-porn policy and assigns age ratings to each app. Google Play makes ratings optional and leaves their assignment up to app developers. However, the problems may stem from users, not the apps, so don't rely on either Apple or Google ratings in the same way as you do with video game and movie ratings.
- Test the app yourself first to monitor other users' posts and interactions. If it's a social sharing app, search for hashtags (keywords) that signal inappropriate material — if your search results turn up NSFW material, you can bet it's not safe for school either.
As part of an ongoing solution, parents can use a mobile security app to receive alerts when a new app is downloaded to a child's phone, which provides an opportunity to step in and test the app earlier than might otherwise have been possible.
MMGuardian debuted its new safety apps at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In addition to providing an early warning system, MMGuardian lets parents block apps from being downloaded, set time limits on permissible apps and prevent texting while driving.
As part of an ongoing solution, parents can use a mobile security app to receive alerts when a new app is downloaded to a child's phone — a feature that Holl's MMGuardian offers.
For now, the child must have an Android device, but the company said it's working on an iPhone version.
Keeping apps safe for kids is a major challenge for the security industry.
"Until technology can provide a reliable solution," Holl said. "There's no substitute for a parent's vigilance."
Ogden, Utah-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question? Email Leslie Meredith at email@example.com, or join her at AskLeslie on Facebook or Leslie Meredith on Google+.