In our last post we looked at how teens were deserting Facebook for other apps that were ‘cooler’, or, more specifically, parent free. With most parents on Facebook now, it is no place for kids to carry out their social interactions. They maintain a presence on the site, but use other apps and services when interacting with friends.
What follows is part 1 of a 2 part post which aims to give a brief overview of the apps we have observed are most popular among our students in grade 5 and 6 right now. The information following aims merely to help parents understand what these programs are, what they do, and the potential issues that may come up.
Kik and iMessage
These instant messaging services are highly popular for teenagers and also in Primary schools for students as young as grade 3.
iMessage is only available on Apple devices. Surveys we conducted at Kalinda before our 1:1 iPad program began found that up to 90% of students grade 4 and above owned an Apple device, usually an iPod touch or iPad. iMessage comes free with these products. iMessage is basically SMS, with the key difference being that you don’t need a phone account for it to work. As long as you have Wifi connection you can send as many messages as you like and it will never show on your phone bill. iMessage is quick and easy, making it great to quickly get in touch with your friends. Conversations can sometimes start on iMessage and spread to other apps, for example, one child might ask the other: “What to play on Snapchat?” (an app we will cover in our next post). iMessage can be turned off in the Settings on your ‘iDevice’.
Kik Messenger is available on both Apple and Android devices, and needs to be downloaded from the relevant app store (iTunes or Google Play). This is a key difference as it means you can message anyone with the app, not just friends with an Apple device.
Conversations that start on more public social media sites might cross over to Kik, when users decide they don’t want so public an audience for what they are saying. Kids will often advertise their Kik username on social media sites, such as Instagram, with the words ‘Kik me @…..’ (inserting their username), meaning ‘message me’. Being so open about their username allows almost anyone to contact them, which quickly makes a ‘private’ messaging service anything but.
One thing that parents often don’t understand is the nature of the messaging that happens on apps such as these. Parents (as a general age group) tend to most commonly message one person at a time, and this is usually done when you have something specific to tell that person. My wife messages me to say ‘bring milk and bread home’ etc. Tweens and teens message multiple people at once, and do so regularly, whether they have something specific to say or not. This means you can have any number of people involved in a message exchange unsupervised by adults that has no guiding purpose to it. In our experience this is a recipe for disaster and very frequently ends in tears or worse. We’ve found that students can quickly find themselves involved in conversations with friends that have invited friends who have then invited their friends. Pretty soon they may be talking to 18 different people and only know 3 or 4 of them. Therefore, you might consider these apps more like chat room facilitators than private message services.
The nature of this type of group messaging is that conversations can quickly spiral out of control as things are said that children don’t know how to handle. If someone is mean to someone else in an online group situation, it can be a very distressing experience for the victim. Unfortunately group mentality can often kick in, with others in the group jumping on the wagon of giving the victim a hard time, and those that may have usually stepped in to stop the mean statements in a ‘real life’ setting staying quiet because they’re not too sure how to respond. To exacerbate matters, children are often unsure how to ‘leave’ a chat that may be making them uncomfortable, with all messages still popping up as notifications on their device long after they wanted to leave the conversation.
As you may be gathering, even though many parents have expressed to us that they see message services as harmless, unfortunately the practical result of children messaging anyone and everyone without adult knowledge is generally negative, and teachers very regularly have to pick up the emotional pieces as students return to school the next day.
Kik recently raised the minimum user age from 13 to 17 years of age. As we’ve said often, it is our recommendation that Primary aged students should NOT be using apps such as this, and that parents should reinforce to their children the age requirements and have a conversation about why those restrictions may be in place. It might be helpful to relate it to other ‘real world’ things, such as drinking alcohol, or driving a car. These activities aren’t bad in themselves, but society has imposed an age limit because people under that age may not have the capacity to deal with the potential situations/dangers that may arise when doing them.
When it comes to these type of social apps, as parents we walk a difficult line between protecting our children from harmful situations and isolating them socially. For example, if all your child’s friends are conducting most of their social interactions on iMessage, then a simple ban on using the app will cause your child to feel isolated and cut off from what is going on, which may have negative consequences for them socially and be emotionally distressing for them in itself.
Once again, there is no substitute for a good relationship with your child, and regular ‘co-viewing’ sessions. If you build up trust with your child, then hopefully they are happy to sit with you and discuss the types of conversations that are going on online, both positive and negative, and you can guide them in how they navigate their own course through the different situations that arise. Begin with allowing your child to look through your own online interactions with you (as long as they’re appropriate) from a junior Primary age, and as they grow older they will have learned lots about how what people say online reflects on people’s perceptions of them as a person, as well as how it impacts the people they post it to.
NEXT WEEK: Part 2 – Instagram and Snapchat