THE INTERNET — The popular and controversial anonymous app Kik nearly shut down in October 2019, because of the company's increased focus on cryptocurrency and a $100 million lawsuit by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Kik, which boasts millions of active users, ultimately avoided the shutdown when company MediaLabs bought it.
The popular app allows users to remain anonymous and can contain sexually explicit content. It has also been linked to child predators in the past. While Kik didn't end up closing its virtual doors, other controversial apps known for allowing explicit content have in the past.
Does shutting down controversial apps keep kids safe online?
In short, no. If someone wants to look at taboo content or find sexual meetups online, there are numerous methods to do so. Shutting down or banning one platform does not make those desires and motivations go away. This can be frustrating for parents and caregivers who wish to protect their children.
But understanding this concept, and knowing what websites to block for children, can help give parents more tools to combat apps or websites associated with explicit content.
Here's a few examples of some apps or websites that have faced controversy and as a result faced shutdowns.
Craigslist also removed its "personals" section, a popular place to find casual sexual encounters, in 2018. Those ads have since dispersed to different places, some of which are harder for authorities to monitor.
Unlike Craigslist and Tumblr, some sites discontinue completely, like Yik Yak, an app that connected people through GPS and allowed them to upvote or downvote other users and create and view discussions. Yik Yak received criticism for the amount of cyberbullying and harassment happening through the app and its usage declined with the app eventually shutting down in 2017.
While platforms may change or go away, their users remain and simply move their communications underground or to other places. Often a new platform emerges to fill those voids, offering a place for former users of the Craigslist "personals" section to go. When it seemed Kik would shut down, some users said they would move to platforms. Sometimes, the users switch to other apps temporarily, like in the case of Omegle.
In 2020, Omegle, a random video chat service, experienced rapid growth. Its ability to connect anonymously over video, like Kik, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic which kept people inside led to another peak of popularity. Some platforms, like Omegle don't disappear, they only decline. Omegle had a burst of users in 2009 when it debuted but then dipped as other video sharing options came on mainstream sites. But in 2020 it came roaring back, garnering over 25,000 users daily.
So what can parents do to help keep kids safe online?
One of the most effective things a parent can do talking regularly with their children. While the apps may shut down or decline in use, the desires that propelled users there remain the same and they typically will rotate to another platform that meets their needs if one leaves — or another one will simply come along and take its place.
Parents should continuously talk to their kids and monitor their behavior for sudden changes. These changes can be moodiness, hiding things, refusing to talk, sleepiness, anxiety or more. If there's a quick or dramatic change in behavior, something may be up — and that something may be participating in one of these apps.
For tweens in particular, parents can change the settings on any smartphones that parents have to approve downloads. On Apple this can be done through creating a family account and on the screen time setting. For Androids, Family Link can manage your child's devices and settings. On individual devices, there's a parental controls category under settings.
If there's a concern about texting, most wireless carriers allow the option to block text messages or calls. You can also block numbers through settings on Android or Apple or use a third-party app to block text messages.
Knowing the names of the apps is not enough; knowing the names of your child's friends is a better preventative measure.
If you know the name's of your child's friends you can understand more about them. Your child is friends with them for a reason; maybe the friend has a similar hobby or interest, or has other appeals like a sense of humor — or in some situations, is engaging in risky (yet exciting) behavior. Children listen and follow their peers. If you know who your child's friends are, that can be an opening for discussions and even behavior change. Instead of just saying "don't do that," a parent can ask, "Would Maddie do this?" or "What would Diego think of this?"
Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is the CEO of Digital Respons-Ability, and her company trains parents, educators and students on digital citizenship. She is also a college instructor, mother and author of the upcoming book "Digital Citizenship in Schools."