App Safety Challenge! 7-Day Step by Step Guide to Preview Apps for Your Kids

by Dec 15, 2020Tech Solutions

Before giving kids access to any app, parents should download it, use it, and explore every nook and cranny for seven straight days. 

In this post we’ll show you step by step what that might look like so that you can thoroughly vet any apps your kids are wanting to download. 

Why 7 days?

Your first experience with an app isn’t always an accurate reflection of what your kids might see over time. Pop-up ads are constantly changing and the content of the app itself can become increasingly more mature or inappropriate.

If possible, enlist your spouse or a friend to sign up with you during the trial period. This will give you a better picture of the app in action, especially if there are video chats or multi-player games involved. 

NOTE:  We’ll use the Houseparty app (owned by Fortnite) as an example of doing the 7 Day App Challenge. We’ll point out some digital pitfalls that we discovered along the way.

Day 1 & 2:  Read or watch a review, install, and sign-up 

Preview

Knowing something about the app before you install and sign up will help you be on the lookout for red flags regarding privacy and potential for sexual abuse.

  • Read a review. Some great places to find reviews are the Protect Young Minds blog and Common Sense Media.
  • Take Notes. As you read reviews, make note of things you want to watch out for while you’re using the app.

APP EXAMPLE:  Through an initial review on Common Sense Media, we learned that HouseParty is a live-streamed, unmoderated app that is set up for group video chat and multiplayer games within the app. Knowing this ahead of time, these are some questions we made note of: 

  • Can children be contacted by strangers?
  • Could my child be exposed to sexually abusive content
  • Are the games provided within the app free? Or do they require regular “upgrades” (and therefore also a credit card)?

Related: Social Media App Ratings: Can Parents Trust Them?

Install and sign up

You can glean a lot of information about the app just by going through the sign-up process. Many apps indicate a minimum age restriction. Unfortunately, it’s not usually enforced. TIP: Try putting in a younger birthdate than what is “allowed” to see if it’s accepted by the app.

APP EXAMPLE:  For the HouseParty app, new users are asked to fill in a number of data fields: full name, username, password, and birthday (minimum age 13). In addition, your child can add her picture to her profile name. 

Other information that is asked during the signup for HouseParty includes your phone number, and permission to access your camera, microphone, and location. The location feature enables your phone to find friends who are near you (but also means that your child can be found by others). You can turn off any of these features through settings, but keep in mind your kids could turn those features back on.

 Study the data collected during sign up

During the sign-up process, consider what kind of access the app will have to your child’s phone.  Look for any of the following ways the app can add friends:

  • Does the app require or ask for permission to connect to the contacts in your child’s Facebook account or other social media?
  •  Does the app go through your child’s contacts list on his phone to invite friends to join the app?
  • Does the app use the phone’s location tracking?
  • Does the app invite you to copy your profile link so that you can send a text message to invite others to join the app?

APP EXAMPLE:  All of the above data are potentially used during the sign-up process for Houseparty. In addition, the app can also easily connect to Snapchat through the Settings>Edit Profile channel. Taken together, these various contact channels can allow a number of unknown persons (“friends of friends”) to contact your child. The privacy settings will need to be used in this case to cut down the number of undesired contacts.

Related: Instagram Alert! Are Sex Traffickers Targeting Your Kids?

Read the Privacy Policy

Be sure to read the app’s privacy policy:

  • Is it clear what information is being collected by the app, how it’s used, and how it’s shared. Does the app collect information from minors? Can you opt-out?
  • Can you change your browser settings to block or delete cookies and or targeted advertising

APP EXAMPLE:  Houseparty explicitly states in its privacy policy that the app is not intended for children under the age of 13 and does not collect information from such minors. However, parents should use this as a guide and not as a guarantee that information won’t be collected, especially through connected third-party sites or apps. 

Days 3 & 4:  Explore

If you signed up for the app with a spouse or friend, then exploring the app will be easier.  As you use the app features, make note of who can contact your child and how, and what kind of information can be shared, both through video and text.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What happens when you open the app?   Does it immediately send a notification to other users that you are online?
  • Check the app you are testing for its method(s) of starting a chat with another user and what the default setting is when you sign into the app.
  • Can strangers or “friends of friends” enter the chat without permission or go undetected?
  • Do all users on the chat need to set their privacy settings in order for your child to be safe from strangers entering the chat? (i.e. It may not be enough for your child’s privacy settings to be on if “friends of friends” can find their way into the chat room through her friends’ contact lists.)
  • Can you modify or restrict the number of notifications that you receive from others on this app?
  • Can screenshots or conversations be captured or recorded by others during a video chat session and shared publicly without permission? 
  • Are text messages and shared pictures stored in the app or do they “disappear” after a certain time?  
  • What kind of parental controls exist so that you can monitor the kind of activity your child is engaging in?
  • Does the app have any filtering or moderating features if there is a chat function?
  •  Are there pop-up ads on the app?  If so, can they be disabled?  If not, what kind of ads are being promoted?  Check the privacy policy for any third-party or advertising content and how it’s shared.
  •  If the app does not have pop-up ads, what is its revenue stream?  For example, are users prompted to make in-app purchases related to games
  • Are there any hidden Internet browsers in the app?  For example, when you click on the app’s privacy policy, does a new browser open up without parental restrictions being enforced?  

APP EXAMPLE: With Houseparty, the moment you are in the app, your friends receive a notification that you are “in the house” and can start a video chat. You can change your setting to “sneak into the house” (i.e. online, but not visible), and there’s a simple trick to doing so, but every user should know the feature.

In Houseparty, a videochat includes two to eight people at a time in a “room”. The screen “splits” so that with each friend who joins, he can be seen by everyone if the phone’s camera setting is on. 

An important security feature of this app is that the videochat can be locked for a private group by clicking on an icon at the bottom of the screen.  However, unless all parties in the video lock down their videochat, the potential exists for a stranger to enter the room.  Thankfully, the app does have a stranger alert notification, at which point users can quickly end their video session. 

Be aware that private text messages can be sent between two individuals during a group chat, making users more vulnerable to unwanted messages. 

There are no pop-up ads on the app.  Instead, users can video chat and simultaneously play games such as Heads Up for free up to a point; it does prompt users to upgrade or purchase additional games beyond the free version. 

“Because there’s no screening and the video is live, there’s always the possibility of inappropriate content for children.”

CommonSense Media on Houseparty

Day 5 & 6:  Continue to Assess and Double Check

Stay engaged with the app over the next couple of days.  This is a chance to see if the content has changed at all within the app.

Some of your action items could include the following:

  • Go into the settings and permissions and check that your initial privacy settings are still the same. Has anything been reset or changed from the first set up?
  • Are there any settings that can be activated to make the app safer for your child? For example, can you block and/or report unwanted contacts easily?  Can you disconnect any social apps that are linked to this app to limit the number of contacts that can make new requests?  Go to your Settings>Permission (or through Edit Profile) and try disconnecting apps. If you are using the app with a friend, try blocking or muting each other as a privacy test.
  • Do you notice any messages from strangers or ‘friends of friends’ asking to be added to your contacts?
  • Do you know when your app has accessed your phone’s camera or microphone? Does this happen each time you sign into the app or do you have to click to consent each time you enter the app?  Can the camera and/or microphone be turned off while using the app?
  • In ad-driven apps, watch for the maturity and content of the ads. Do you notice them becoming progressively more inappropriate for younger children?

 Related: “Can I Play This?” Video Game Decisions Made Easy in 4 Quick Steps

 Day 7:  Review,  Decide, and Debrief   

On the last day of the app challenge, take some time to review what you’ve learned over the past six days.

  • Go into the app one additional time and look for anything unusual or new that you might not have noticed or seen since first signing up. 
  • Are the privacy and permissions settings still the way that you wanted them to be set up?
  • Are there any unusual messages from strangers asking to join your contact list or asking you to join theirs?

Decide if this app should be used by your child

Your decision about whether or not your child can use the app will be determined by a number of factors: security or privacy risks you discovered during your 7-day app review; your child’s age and maturity level; and your ability to mitigate some of the risks by using the settings to lock down any “back-door” issues. Sometimes the answer to your child’s app request is a “not yet” rather than absolutely no. 

Debrief with your child

If you’ve decided that the app is appropriate for your child, then take some time to go over the app and the ground rules you want him to follow.

  • For apps with video chat or real-time communication, remind your child to immediately exit a chat if a stranger appears to enter the conversation. No exceptions
  • Show your child how to keep her chats in private mode by going over the settings together (e.g., using a lock icon or whatever function the app may have).  

APP EXAMPLE:  In Houseparty, you have to “lock” your conversation using an icon at the bottom of the screen to make it private each time you begin a new session. 

  • Talk to your child about his digital citizenship and self-respect. Before he presses “send” on a picture or conversation, ask him to self-audit: Would he be happy to have anything he does online shared with friends and family? If the answer is no, then don’t share it. Nothing on the Internet is ever really “private.”

Related:  11 Safe Video Chat Rules You Need to Teach Your Kids

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No one cares more about your child’s safety and privacy than you, so kudos for taking the time and effort to do this! It also sends a huge message to your children that you care about their wellbeing and want them to feel safe.

Do you have any tips for evaluating apps? We’d love to hear from you! Email us your ideas at [email protected]

Protect Young Minds Staff

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