My kids use messaging all the time - usually Snapchat. I want to know that they are safe when using messaging. What are the risks and what do I need to know so that I can have conversations with my kids about it? Should I let them use these apps?
Messaging apps (or 'social messaging' or 'chat applications') are apps and platforms that enable messaging between users.
While many of these started life as social networking apps, some have now developed into broader platforms.
Users of messaging apps can send text, video, images and location information to individuals or groups. Some of these apps allow for secure messaging or messages that disappear within a certain timeframe.
MOST USED MESSAGING APPS WORLDWIDE
You probably already knew this, but for children Facebook isn't cool.
Most children prefer to use a variety of apps to connect with each other and curate their lives. As the online world evolves and changes, there are more and more messaging apps to keep up with and this can be a challenge - especially if you are used to just using iMessage or WhatsApp.
And some apps, like Instagram, whose primary purpose isn't messaging, also incorporate messaging functions.
WhatsApp 2 billion
Facebook Messenger 1.3 billion
WeChat 1.2 billion
Viber 1 billion
QQ 600 million
SnapChat 514 million
Telegram 550 million
Kik 300 million
Discord 300 million
Signal 64 million
These figures change all the time, and the pandemic has increased the number of users very quickly for almost all apps.
Most messaging apps do not allow users who are younger than 13.
There are some apps aimed at younger children such as Messenger Kids (1.4 million users) from Facebook, which requires a parent Facebook account or JustTalk Kids. These apps have expanded privacy controls suitable for younger children.
WHAT'S GREAT ABOUT THEM?
Your child has access to a support network. It's a network that is likely to be far more responsive than in real life - and much bigger. This is a great way for them to get help with their homework or advice on how to deal with a friendship issue.
Collaboration. Children can collaborate with people that they may otherwise not be able to.
Digital maturity. As your child uses more chat services they will learn to become comfortable with managing multiple streams of information, just as adults need to do. This is an essential part of developing their digital literacy.
WHAT ARE SOME DOWNSIDES?
Advertising. Many messaging apps have advertising which may not be appropriate for your child. This may be problematic and it is one of the reasons that there are age limits for these apps.
Visibility. Your child’s choices - especially of friends and relationships - are visisble to a wider group of people.
Friendship issues. Friendship issues can be amplified when interacting online. It can feel safer to type something rather than saying it to someone’s face and misinterpretations are commonplace. Children will need to learn to be careful about what they say and develop skills to deal with issues that arise when people are rude or disrespectful.
WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I ASK?
Who will my child be messaging? Should I ask to see their list of contacts?
What advertising will my child see and can I control it?
Am I comfortable with the data that is being shared with the owners of the platform?
Does the app offer a disappearing message feature?
Do I understand the privacy settings so I can guide my children in setting preferences?
Are there any costs involved?
How much data does this app use this use?
MORE ABOUT MESSAGING APPS
This ABC video looks at messaging apps and at the video chat app Houseparty in which you can create rooms with friends.
Video from Australia's ABC on messaging apps. Source: ABC Science on YouTube.
MESSAGING APPS - protecting younger users
The makers of messaging apps are starting to add features to protect younger users.
In 2021, Instagram added a feature to prevent adults messaging people under 18 who don’t follow them. The feature sends the adult user a notification saying they can’t DM the account.
Instagram are also using AI tools to send teenage users prompts encouraging them to be careful when interacting with adults. The system detects suspicious behaviour such as an adult sending a large number of friend requests or messages to children and sends a safety notice to the recipient and gives them the option to end the conversation, or block, report, or restrict the sender.
Of course, many of these tools rely on the age verification when users sign up and so are not foolproof.
MEssaging - WHAT ELSE CAN I READ?
There is a huge amount of information about all kinds of apps and children available on the internet, most of which is accurate, sensible and informative, but you might like to take a look at these sources to add to your knowledge.