By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The effort to stay involved in children's Web usage gets tougher and tougher, thanks to the Internet and a host of apps. Two apps in particular -- Kik and Snapchat -- have drawn warning flags from parents because of their ease of use and anonymity. The apps can be used safely, and both provide guidance to parents. But monitoring the apps can be a challenge for parents who may be worried about sexting or conversations with anonymous users.
Similar to other cross-platform messaging programs, Kik gives users of all smartphones and tablet devices the ability to chat in real time.
What makes Kik powerful is a real-time interface and fast service that allows users to see when another user is responding. The app also offers easy ways to send pictures or sketches without using MMS systems. And on Droid and iOS formats, the app integrates with other popular apps.
The big catch for parents, however: A Kik user's ID is their user name -- not their phone number, not their Facebook ID, not their email address. It also effectively allows unlimited text messaging for free.
According to a press release from developers, obtaining a Kik user name gives users keep complete control of their identity and privacy, which has led to ease of use on Instagram, SocialCam, Viddy and other apps.
A quick scan of reviews on the app in Apple Store reveal that people post ads similar to personals. Users on Instagram will also post their Kik screen names.
And Kik is closely related to Instagram, said Michael Sheehan, a blogger at High TechDad.com.
"What is going on here is that these people are using Kik Messenger to have online chats," Sheehan wrote. "Comments on Instagram (are) public, the chats on Kik are not."
Kik doesn't have much to offer parents who want to monitor their child's messages. A new feature known as Kik Cards allows pictures and videos to be sent easily -- the new update led developers to label their app as appropriate for people 17 and older.
The app has no parental controls. According to an FAQ document on the company's website, parents are recommended to download a nanny or parental control app that monitors activity. The app also has a block feature that lets users automatically deny all contact from someone questionable.
Another picture-sharing service, Snapchat has become one of Apple Store's top-10 apps. Developers say the app gives users a new way to share moments with friends -- its unique self-destruct feature deletes pictures 10 seconds after they have been opened, and notifies a user if the recipient tries to save it.
Snapchat has been harried by critics who say the service makes sexting -- the act of sending naked or lewd pictures via text messages -- easier for teens. Because the messages get automatically deleted, parents may not be able to keep track of what their children are sending or receiving.
Developers have taken additional steps to inform parents about parental controls. In a lengthy guide intended for parents, it spells out that it is not OK to "create, send, receive or save a sexually explicit image of a minor." The guide also offers tips on when the 10-second countdown starts and how evidence can be turned over to law enforcement.
Both services can be used for fun between parents and children, or between children and their friends, but that requires making sure that teens keep a sharp eye on their privacy controls and don't befriend anyone they don't know in real life.
The use of these programs also gives parents a perfect way to teach children that nothing is ever really deleted on the Internet, and privacy can never be guaranteed, said Rebecca Levey, a mother of 10-year-old twin daughters and a technology blogger, to the Associated Press.
"If they want privacy," Levey said, "they should write in a journal and hide it under their mattress."
Facebook a passing fad?
More than three-fourths of teenagers have a cellphone and use online social networking sites such as Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. But Facebook for teens has become a bit like a school-sanctioned prom -- a rite of passage with plenty of adult chaperones -- while newer apps such as Snapchat and Kik Messenger are the much cooler after-party.
Even Facebook acknowledged in a recent regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was losing younger users: "We believe that some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook," the company warned investors in February.
Source: The Associated Press