The new technologies underscore one of the most vexing problems for parents in the digital age: How to help children make smart decisions in a landscape of devices and apps that seems to change overnight? Parents see how technology helps with schoolwork and communicating with friends and family. But they also fret about how to keep impulsive children from making potentially dangerous mistakes in online activities often done out of sight of parents or teachers.
Some of these apps could make it harder for parents to keep track of their kids’ online activities. But the tradeoff the apps promise is the ability to make mistakes online without the consequences of those decisions sticking with kids for life on the Internet’s biggest social-media sites.
On Snapchat and Wickr, users can exchange photos and texts that automatically self-destruct on the phones of the sender and receiver. Send a video or photo by text to a friend and set a timer for those images to disintegrate on both phones. The companies promise the photos aren’t stored on their servers or sold to marketers eager to create profiles on young Internet users.
Tumblr and Formspring let users blog and comment on online forums without having to reveal their identities.
The new apps highlight a shift — people have become more careful about how they present themselves online. They are jittery about the digital footprints they leave on Facebook — and these concerns have led to less time spent on some of those social-media juggernauts, the companies say.
But tech and child-development experts warn that the newer services may not be as secure as they claim to be. A sexual photo, known as a “sext,” can be spread quickly if it’s grabbed via screenshot by a recipient or photographed by another phone. About 20 percent of teens said they engaged in sexting, according to a 2009 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The apps are easy and alluring, but they have also sparked a debate among child-development experts about whether kids may be taking greater risks online. Because they believe their gossipy texts or videos of partying will vanish for good, they assume they won’t be held accountable for sharing even the most intimate details of their lives on Facebook or Twitter.
“Unfortunately, where these apps run headlong into adolescent development is that kids easily believe bad things can’t happen to them. It’s the invulnerability and bullet-proof thing in adolescence that drives kids to take a few more drinks and then drive,” said Michael Rich, the director of Harvard University’s Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Texting, Tumblr and Twitter are the “Three T’s” that have drawn the most interest by teens, according to Stephen Balkam, head of the Family Online Safety Institute. He said his 16-year-old daughter has a Facebook account but is careful about her image there, knowing her parents and future college admissions boards could research her online history.