Dakota Family Services hosted “Community Chat: Internet Safety for Kids” on Friday, April 23, 2021, from 12:15 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. The presentation was a brief overview of some of the darker aspects of the internet and what parents can do about it. Therapists Lucas Mitzel and Christy Wilkie were the speakers and introduced by Randi Streff, vice president and clinic director of DFS.
Mitzel likened the internet to an iceberg, consisting of the surface web, deep web, and dark web. The surface web is for sites like Google, Facebook, and CNN. The deep web is where the databases, medical records, and confidential information live. The dark web is the scary place, where political protests, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and pornography are lurking. The deep web and dark web make up about 96% of the internet. Though kids usually do not go on the dark web, there are helpful apps, such as Bark, that you can install that will monitor what kids are typing and saying on the internet.
While there are lots of positive things about the internet, every social media app and website discussed has a dark side. Kids need instruction on how to stay safe on the internet, just as they would need instruction on how to stay safe at the mall or how to safely use a firearm for hunting.
Many kids have a Facebook page to manage their sports and school groups. People looking to prey on kids will do “mass adds” where they add as many Facebook friends as they can, trying to get information and find who they can talk to and message. Teach kids to only add people they know as their friends, and set their security settings so that their page can only be seen by friends. There are tutorials on YouTube that can show you how to set privacy settings. Predators will look for posts such as, “I am mad at my parents” or “I feel so alone” and target them. Predators will seek to engage children through Facebook dating, misrepresenting themselves so kids don’t know who they are talking to.
Instagram is the new Facebook. Posts consist of pictures and videos. If your account is not set to private, anyone can view it. The point of Instagram is to have followers, and people will try to engage others in their content through direct messaging. There is stalking on Instagram, and it is common to see pornography stars followed on Instagram and Facebook. Some people post to Instagram to project how they want to be seen, trying to attain the right look or the right appearance, and it contributes to a lot of insecurity in kids. While males may see it as something to strive for, females may see how they never measure up. As a result, pages have appeared for eating disorders that actually perpetuate eating disorders or pages for depression that perpetuate depression. Some kids make a fake Instagram account for show and then make a separate account for just their friends where they post things they don’t want their parents to see. Parents need to know who their kids are following, who they are logging in as, and who they are online with.
Twitter is a little different. You can follow someone on Twitter, and they don’t have to follow you back; they don’t have to add you as a friend. You can follow people, corporations, the President, or celebrities and see what they are “tweeting.” With every tweet, there can be thousands of comments or subtweets in response. Twitter is more anonymous, and bullying is very common. There are people who purposely bully and provoke, known as trolls, everywhere on social media.
OnlyFans is a subscription-based service for photos, videos, and livestream, and is famous for pornography. It gets advertised on all the various social media platforms.
Omegle is a site that connects you randomly with strangers for texting and video chatting. It is advertised as a way to meet people, but its front page states that predators have been known to use the site. It is not moderated at all. The first thing asked is your age, sex, and location. It is typically guys looking for girls and almost immediately turns sexual.
Hoop is similar, like Tinder for kids. Branded as a way to meet new friends in your area, it will connect you with a match, and a lot of your personal information gets transmitted to them. If your kids don’t know how to block them, a predator can continue to see and harass them.
Periscope by Twitter is being discontinued, but there are many similar platforms taking its place, such as meetme. It is a way to livestream yourself over your phone, and anyone can join, watch, comment, and buy stuff for you. There is a lot of sexual content and advertising is targeted at young women. There is an age restriction, but no proof is required. Kids can easily lie about their age and will only get banned off the app if reported. Anyone using these apps needs to do a very careful age verification check as they may be talking to a kid posing as an adult.
Reddit is a great website for finding people with like-minded interests and forming a group or online community, called a Sub-Reddit. If you do a Google search on a topic, one of the first things to come up is often a Sub-Reddit. However, there is a dark side to Reddit. Porn is abundant and easy to find, usually labeled NSFW (not safe for work). There is a chat/message feature and no moderation of content.
TikTok started as a lip-syncing app and has become very popular, consisting of user generated videos of all types of content. There are TikTok challenges – some are funny, but some are dangerous. Porn is not allowed on TikTok, but it is there. You can direct message, livestream, and link your other online memberships on a “link tree.” A TikTok post can be deleted, but once it is sent to someone, it exists on the internet. As a parent you can see the videos your kids have liked by going to their profile. What you “Like” determines the type of content that feeds onto your page, true for most all apps. Some kids will keep videos that they make in their drafts and send them out from there, not posting them. TikTok can be damaging because kids want to be like what they see, again leading to eating disorders or mental health issues. Some TikTok personalities become famous among kids with millions of followers, even though the content is not appropriate for kids.
Snapchat is popular messaging app to send messages, videos, or pictures to your friends. The idea is that you pick how long the post lasts on the internet, and as soon as it’s done it deletes and can’t be viewed again. Nothing ever deletes from the internet. Period. Snapchat has servers that hold onto every single thing that’s been posted. If someone takes a screenshot of a Snap you sent, you will be sent a notice that they have done so, but there are ways around this. Be aware that you could be sending things through Snapchat that people are capturing without you knowing it. A part of Snapchat, Snapmaps, has the exact location you were at the last time you opened the app. Parents should have their kids turn off the Snapmap feature in Snapchat, and always teach kids not to have locations or other identifiers in their user names.
The platforms and apps discussed were the ones Mitzel and Wilkie have encountered most commonly in their counseling with kids in trouble. They stressed that it is important to communicate openly with your kids about what they are doing on the internet. They may get annoyed with you, but they will know you care about them and will be less likely to engage in risky behavior. Don’t always rely on your kids’ perception of a social platform or app. Investigate it for yourself. Look it up and check it out.
Dakota Family Services can be found at https://dakotafamilyservices.org/. Located in Minot, Fargo, and Bismarck, DFS provides outpatient therapy, psychological testing, and medication management for children, adolescents, and adults.