App safety: 7 talks to have with kids and teens

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You may have a whole mental checklist you run through before deciding to put an app on your or your kids' phones—but do they know that? Talking about these seven things can help your kids be informed about app safety, stay safe online, and feel like an active part of the tech conversation at home. 

1. What age ratings mean.

Talk to your child about what the different age ratings on apps mean. While the Apple App Store uses actual ages, the Google Play Store uses the "E," "T," and "MA" style labels that are typically found on video games. 

Let your child know what age rating you're open to (potentially) approving. This isn't as cut and dry as following the age brackets associated with each label. What you're comfortable with depends on your child's age, maturity level, and digital literacy. But communicating a limit to your kids can help them feel more confident when searching for apps—and reduce the number of download requests you have to decline. 

2. How apps can expose private data.

It's never too early to start talking about data privacy smarts with your kids. For small children, you may want to frame this conversation using real-world examples they're familiar with—such as how eavesdropping or spying isn't something we should do. 

You can show older kids where to find information about data privacy on an app's download page. Walk through what notifications they may see when an app requests data, and talk about the difference between a request that makes sense (i.e. Zoom requiring camera access) and one that doesn't (a puzzle app asking for 24/7 location data). 

Young girl on phone

3. Ways to stay safe on social media.

While it's understandable that children of all ages want access to social media to chat with their friends, these apps can make it feel harder than ever to keep kids safe online. 

Talking to your kids about the potential dangers of social media—not to scare them, but to inform them—as well as going over core internet safety principles can help. You may even want to implement some ground rules to start, such as:

  • No tagging photos or videos with their location
  • No posting pictures of their face—or those of their friends—without permission
  • Only friending and following people they know in real life
  • Telling a trusted adult if they ever receive a message that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Never sharing photos of themselves with or talking to strangers through private messages

Some parents also decide to friend and follow their children's social media accounts. Doing so may give you some peace of mind about how they're using the platform, without the need to access and review your kids' social media accounts yourself. 

4. When a message might be a scam.

There are some scams that trip up even the most eagle-eyed business professionals, so it's no wonder that people under the age of 20 lost over $101 million to online scams in 2021 alone. 

These scams can come through emails, text messages, and direct messages on various apps. While each scam can look different, talking to your kids about the warning signs (and letting them know that you're always available to take a second look) can help them be on their guard. 

5. How to spot sneaky micro-transactions.

Not all app-related financial losses happen as the result of a scam, though. Many free-to-download game apps contain optional micro-transactions. A micro-transaction is a cost associated with playing a game—even if the game app itself was free to download. One example of this is a match-style puzzle game that allows you a limited number of turns per day. Once you use up those turns, the app may present you with an offer to spend a dollar or two to purchase more turns.

It isn't always clear to kids that these purchase offers cost real-world money. If your kids are regularly clicking 'buy' on in-game pop-up ads suggesting they buy more turns, spins, coins, gems, or other bonuses, your bank account will take the hit. 


6. Why you’re using parental controls.

You may want to explain to your kids how and why you’re using parental controls. 

Navigating app safety for your kids can be tough, but sitting down and having the talk together can make all the difference when using parental controls. This can help them feel more included —and make it clear that you only have their best interests in mind.

7. How to expand their privileges.

If your answer to an app or game request has to be "no," you may be able to soften the blow by talking to your kids about ways they can expand their privileges in the future. Sometimes, changing that "no" to a "yes" may be a matter of getting older—which is where explaining age ratings and limits can come in handy! 

But if your "no" is driven by other factors, such as concern that your kids are already spending too much time online, this can be a good opportunity to talk about responsibility, prioritization, and more. 

There's no right or wrong way to structure this conversation—you know your child best—but it never hurts to take a chance to communicate and keep the entire family invested in staying safe online.

Some parents find it easiest to restrict all in-app purchases for their young children—both Apple and Android devices offer this option. For older kids, though, allowing (and discussing) some in-app purchases can be part of learning sensible spending, digital independence and healthy money management. 

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