Online Gaming and Predator Risk

A story this week about an accused child predator in New Jersey has a twist in it that should give pause to a lot of parents out there.

gameboy-advanceA Flemington New Jersey man who was arrested last year on child pornography charges was charged again, this time for trying to have an 11-year old girl send him nude photos. The catch? He used a Gameboy to find and contact the girl. According to NJ Acting Attorney General John Hoffman:

“This case is a cautionary tale for parents, who need to be aware that their children may encounter sexual predators online in places they would not expect. Pirretti allegedly used a children’s game and the chat feature offered by this gaming network to try to target this innocent young girl for sexual exploitation. Fortunately, her parents learned of his alleged predatory behavior and alerted law enforcement.”

A Gameboy is thought of by most as a harmless toy for children, but it isn’t. As a matter of fact, any device that has internet access can be used by predators to contact children.

It’s important for parents to start educating kids about the risks of online activity before ever granting internet access, even via a handheld gaming system. It’s equally important for parents to be vigilant about what kids are doing online and whom they’re communicating with.

We realize that it’s difficult to talk to young kids about the existence of predators and other online characters who are up to no good, but it’s essential. This of it this way: if your child isn’t mature enough to hear about the risks that exist in the online world, perhaps she’s not mature enough to have unsupervised internet access.

Better safe than sorry.


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Digital Parenting – Your Child’s First Email Address

Okay parents, if your child’s age is still in the single digits, she might not yet have her first email address. If she does, you’re probably either waiting to give her unsupervised access, or she doesn’t even know about it yet.

first-email-addressIf she doesn’t have one yet, you can get started any time. After all, if your child’s name is Charlotte Smithfield, we’re sure you’ll agree that is a much better email address than The sooner you claim it, the better.

Note: Before your daughter graduates to her big girl email, you might want to start with an interim step. There are family friendly email providers such as KidsEmail that offer free starter email programs with built in parental monitoring capability. Feel free to check one out.

Once you have selected a permanent email address for your child, there are some things you need to think about before handing it over, especially if you don’t have older kids and this is your first rodeo. There is also some prep work you’re going to want to do with your child. To wit:

When – There is no one answer to the question of what age is correct for having one’s own email address. It depends on the child’s maturity level, and the child’s level of digital awareness, or digital IQ. In general, you want your child to understand that not everything online is as it seems.

The risks – Well, they are numerous, including potential predator risk, cyberbullying, identity theft and exposure to inappropriate conduct and content. There are plenty of resources on this website and elsewhere online that can help you get your child up to speed.

Signing up – You child will no doubt have internet access before having an email address. The main difference is that when she has her own email address, she can sign up for websites and social media, changing the game entirely. Telling your 10 year old, “No, you can’t have an Instagram account” just got a lot trickier. She can sign up without your permission unless you’re monitoring.

Understanding spam and hackers – Children have a tendency to believe that everyone’s motives are positive. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Your child needs to understand that incoming emails must be viewed critically. Have an action plan for what to do when your child receives an email from an unknown sender, or one containing a link or attachment that looks suspect. Phishing attacks are a real risk. The younger the child is, the more likely that you want your child to do nothing, and tell you about it.

The password – Establish a strong, unique password. At least for the first few months or years, log in yourself to make sure she hasn’t changed it. You’ll want to be able to access her messages quickly if anything goes wrong or she is in danger.

Guidelines – Clearly establish guidelines for what types of activities and behavior are permissible are what aren’t. Guidelines should include protecting personal information, including who she gives her email address to (close friends only) and whether she posts it online (no!).

Once your child has her own email address, the options available online increase greatly, as do the risks. And once your child has an email address, it’s tough to take it away. Act accordingly.


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The Problem(s) With Facebook and 12-year-olds

We were cleaning up the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner and my sister in law asked me about one of the more common problems in the digital parenting realm – what to do about her 12 year old, who had opened a Facebook account without her permission. She was unhappy about the new account, and would not have agreed if he had asked permission. She has since grudgingly agreed to let him keep the account, and asked me my opinion.

facebook logo thumbFor starters, the fact that he opened an account without first asking is suboptimal (of course). We don’t mean to scold, but parents are well served having the first in what should be a long serious of social media and digital citizenship talks with their kids before the idea of opening an account enters a child’s mind.

The second issue is Facebook’s age limit, which is 13. My nephew lied about his age to join Facebook, which is not really okay. Add to that the fact that minors under the age of 13 are supposed to have greater protections over their personal data – that protection has been foregone by misrepresenting his age.

We are not saying either that as soon as a child is 13, Facebook or any other social media network is appropriate. We’d keep kids off who are under 13, and only allow kids 13 and older to join only once they are sufficiently mature to deal with safety and propriety issues as they arise. As a parent, you are the person best qualified to determine when this is.

On to monitoring – my sister in law has a Facebook account but rarely goes online. She assured me that she will be upping her online presence in an effort to monitor her son’s Facebook activity but I predict that this will be a challenge. Like most kids, my nephew is very adept at using his phone for online activity, whereas my sister in law tends to be online only when using a computer. If he is into Facebook, he is likely to be using it frequently, and she will only look occasionally.

She has friended her son so that she can easily track what he is posting on Facebook, but this will only work up to a point. Unless she has the login credentials for his account, she will not be able to see the private messages he is sending and receiving, or whether a private message will lead to an in person meeting.

A gateway to other social media? Now that she has signaled that Facebook is okay, and lying about your age online is okay, she should expect him to explore, and possibly open accounts on other social networks. Facebook is no longer where the action is for teens. For starters, his mom is on Facebook and watching. If he decides to join his friends on Yik Yak, or other similarly problematic social networks, there’s no way she is going to be able to follow and monitor him there.

If you do have an 11 or 12 year old who is already active on social media, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it was going to happen eventually anyway, but the younger that kids start online, the greater the parental concerns about safety should be. Even if you know your child is safe online, the pressure is on to instill good principles in him and frequently revisit what he is doing online and what may be inappropriate.



Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

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Grooming – Is Your Child At Risk Online?

Internet grooming can be a misleading term in the realm of digital parenting and predator risk, and perhaps one that some parents aren’t aware of. The term “grooming” refers to online manipulation, usually by an adult, of a minor with the goal of establishing trust and eventually meeting offline. The motives vary but are often sexual. Less often the goal is financial gain.

Methods used by groomers are varied, but often involve impersonating a person in the victim’s age group, establishing a rapport through a common set of interests, flattery or humor, and developing a relationship over the course of weeks or months.

When successful, the end result can be sexploitation (“send me nude photos or else”), sexual assault or kidnapping, in the event that an in-person meeting does occur.

How to recognize it – Groomers are usually careful to keep their activities out of the purview of parents, so if your child is being targeted, that communication is probably happening in private. If you do see online questions like, “Where are your parents right now?” or “Do your parents monitor your online activity?”, that might be a red flag. Also, offers of modeling opportunities, or free stuff in general, should be looked at with a high level of skepticism.

How to prevent it – Rather than lamenting the fact that tweens and teens are spending what seems like endless hours online, parents need to accept that this generation will spend more time online than previous generations did, and that the nature of “relationships” online is different. Before a child ever joins a website or social network, enters an online forum or posts a selfie (eek! – keep those to a minimum and turn off Geo Tags), make sure he or she is aware of the fact that every person online may be less than genuine. We hate to say this, but any time your child makes a new “friend” online, there is a risk that this person is not who they claim to be, and they may have ulterior motives.

Like hackers, groomers tend to be very computer-savvy, and use a variety of methods to get close to kids. Ask yourself if your child, when approached by a stranger online, would come to you for assistance. The answer should be “yes”.


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Are Instagram and Twitter Safe for Under-13 Year-Olds?

I was reading an article this week posted by a fairly well respected professional in the digital parenting space, and he/she was instagram-logogoing through some sites and apps and reviewing whether they are safe for kids under 13 (the age limit for most social media sites). I won’t call out the name or the author or site here; we’re not trying to pick a fight. I was surprised that in this site’s opinion, Instagram and Twitter are indeed safe for kids under 13. We don’t agree, and suspect that most parents who aren’t active on social media and apps don’t have a full understanding of why.

We’ll explain below why they might not be totally safe, but first, here’s how they can be. Let’s say your tween has a Twitter or Instagram account. Her user experience might be safe and wholesome if the following are true:

  1. Her account settings are set to private, and stay that way
  2. She does not post personally identifying information, contact information or screen names from other services in her profile or posts
  3. twitter-logoGeo Tags (GPS location tracking) are turned – off all the time. You don’t want other users tracking her location
  4. She only accepts follow requests from people she knows in real life
  5. She only follows people who she knows in real life, and who post completely age-appropriate and non-harassing content
  6. She only posts age-appropriate content, and never engages in cyberbullying
  7. She never, ever seeks out content other than that posted by folks on her friends list

The above set of things is doable, but requires a huge leap of faith on the part of a parent. Do you feel lucky?

If you have access to your child’s phone and passwords, and a working understanding of Instagram and Twitter, you can check periodically to make sure that numbers 1-6 are as they should be. Number 7, though, is pretty much out of your control. For one thing, most kids who use social media do it primarily on their phone, and their phone goes wherever they go. You can’t watch that 24/7.

Second, let’s consider some things that are true of Instagram and Twitter, and will come into play if your child does do a search on one of those sites for content outside her network. Believe me – that will happen.

A look at what’s out there

Nudity is permitted on Twitter but is not on Instagram. That being said, nude photos are posted to Instagram, and remain there until reported and deleted. Before you say, “my child wouldn’t go looking for porn”, there is such a thing as accidental porn. Even if your child isn’t looking for porn, she might run across it accidentally.

Drug and alcohol pictures and references are common on both networks. Think of it this way – parents are all familiar with friends who post on Facebook with the attention-seeking equivalent of “look at me” pics. For the younger generation that has largely moved to Instagram and Snapchat, so party pictures and the like are common. Also, if you are looking to buy illegal drugs, Instagram is a pretty good place to start.

Adult language is very common on both.

Cyberbullying – Even if your child is not a bully, she can see some very good examples of how cyberbullying can garner likes, followers, laughs and attention on both networks.

Popularity contests are an issue, especially on Instagram. A search on Instagram for the hashtag #rateme returns 189,000 results. A similar search for #hotornot has 114,000 pictures tagged as such. Incidentally, if your daughter does post a selfie tagged with #hotornot, in all likelihood she will at least temporarily set her account to public to maximize her chances of getting votes.

Self-harm and body issue posts are an issue, particularly on Instagram. The hashtag #thynspo (short for thin-inspirspirtion for people with eating disorders and the like) has been banned, but kids know that you can just add a letter to the end to find the results you’re looking for. 74,000 pictures are tagged #thinspoo. 46,000 pics are tagged #thinspooo.

We could go on, but kids who aren’t mature enough to deal with seeing seriously adult content should be kept off of Instagram, Twitter and a lot of other sites and networks that offer easy access to adult content and situations. If your child is 13 or older, as a parent you can decide. If your child is under 13 and you agree to let her join, you need to understand the risks.



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Cell Phones, Social Media and Growing Up Too Fast

There was a time when 10 year-olds tended to hang out with other 10 year-olds. Likewise for 12 year-olds. And 14 year-olds. A 10 year-old hanging out with a 17 year-old? Didn’t happen. Now that has changed.

In today’s digital world, with 95% of teens having internet access, 90% using social media and close to 80% having a smartphone, age as a qualifier for both joining in and choosing a peer group has become optional to say the least.

Joining In

Unless he possesses extraordinary intelligence and perhaps a similar maturity level, a teen needs to be at least 13 to get into high school. Most people can agree that the maturity level required to function at a high school level is markedly higher than is the case in middle school.

tween-online-activityThere is essentially no age or maturity threshold for entering the smartphone and social media world, unless a parent imposes one. In reality, parents routinely give kids a smartphone or internet enabled iPod or other device at 7 or 8 or years old (your experience may be different), and tween use of these devices is frequently unsupervised. Membership to any social network is available to anyone with an internet connection, an email address and a willingness to lie about one’s age. It’s that simple.

Make no mistake – while most networks and apps have a stated age limit, they are in the business of attracting new users and most will only deny a new user based on age under a very narrow set of circumstances.

Choosing a Peer Group

Let’s leave Facebook aside for a moment, where real names and identities are still most common use case, and parents tend to see at least some of what kids are up to. Once a tween has signed up for a network or app, the peer group or community of friends that he chooses is strictly user-determined. On the internet, nobody know how old you are. Other than parents, most people don’t care.

A 12 year-old on Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or can choose to follow or interact with anyone with a public account, regardless of the age of either party.

Let’s say that your tween is interested in humor, or professional sports, or Call of Duty. It is easy for him to seek out users with common interests and engage as he pleases.

In doing so, tweens are almost certain to view and interact with content and commentary that was created by, and intended for older users.

Growing Up Faster (Too Fast?)

In following the course of action outlined above, which is not at all uncommon in our experience, tweens are likely to witness things like pornography, cyberbullying, harassment or posting borderline inappropriate selfies.

This is happening in many cases at an earlier age than parents would think appropriate, and than would have been possible absent the smartphone/social media environment in which they now operate.

The adult nature of the content is only one problem. The other is the risk that the tween will view what he is seeing as normal, and perhaps even join in. What’s normal for an 18 year-old could be profoundly taboo for a 10 year-old. In the case of cyberbullying, sexting and harassment, the results can be devastating, both for the victim and your tween.

Parents’ Role

If you are parent whose tween has a connected device and unsupervised internet access, it is up to you to decide the boundaries of acceptable use, and ensure that your tween is not growing up too fast. This starts with having knowledge of which apps he has downloaded, which social networks he is using and what types of people he is interacting with. If your strategy to date has been to hope for the best, catching up can be daunting task. For parents looking to get up to speed quickly, engaging with ThirdParent can give you a clear picture of what your tween is up to online, and what corrective actions need to be taken. It’s not to late to become more involved.



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Yelp Pays Hefty Fine Over Child Privacy Violations

It looks like someone at the Federal Trade Commission is finally getting serious about child privacy and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Yesterday details of a fine levied on local review site Yelp were revealed – to our knowledge the first of its kind in over a year – relating to charges that were apparently handed down back in April.

yelpYelp has agreed to pay a $450,000 fine for collecting names and email addresses from children under the age of 13 (and therefore violating COPPA) without notifying parents. In Yelp’s words:

“Yelp recently reached a settlement agreement with the Federal Trade Commission regarding a bug in our mobile registration process that allowed certain users to register with any birth date when it was supposed to disallow registrations from individuals under 13 (birthdates on Yelp are optional in the first place, so users are always free to register without one).”

From a parents’ standpoint, this should not make anyone feel better. The statement “birthdates on Yelp are optional” speaks to the fact that they don’t really care how old users are, and therefore are willing to violate the spirit of COPPA in their quest to amass more users and more reviews.

While rarely enforced as strictly and with as steep a penalty as was the case here, it’s not like COPPA is an impossible law to comply with. Firms such as PRIVO (disclosure: ThirdParent is a PRIVO Referring Member/Partner, and that’s a good thing) offer a free and easy way for parents to preapprove and stay on top of which sites and networks their kids are signing up for online.

As we have written before, we’d like to see a broader and more current set of Federal laws that not only protect children’s online privacy more effectively than COPPA does, but that also address children’s online safety. Until then, we’ll be watching with interest to see whether this case is a one-off, or part of a more concerted effort by the FTC to step up enforcement where kids’ online privacy is concerned.


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BatteryPOP – Kids’ Video Network Balances Quality and Safety

It’s one thing to create a kids’ video site that is totally safe and free from cyberbullying; it’s another to create one that has compelling content where pre teens actually want to go. This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Greg Alkalay, the CEO of batteryPOP, a site which launched late last year and has set out to do just that.

batterypop-sq-logoConsider the prime alternative. Online video is hot, and YouTube acts like an irresistible magnet for kids. While YouTube was not specifically created for kids, parents’ reaction varies. Some ignore the risks, and others, though in smaller numbers, try to limit kids’ access.

With YouTube, the risks for young kids are numerous. Not only are there countless adult-oriented videos on the site, but the comments section under many videos frequently are a host to cyberbullying, harassment and extremely coarse adult language. In the worst case scenario, if your child has connected his YouTube account to his Gmail account, he could be opening himself up to some real life creepers.

BatteryPOP should serve as a welcome alternative for parents.

In terms of creating a site with content that kids are truly interested in, battery POP is definitely on the right track. The site is targeted at the 6 – 11 year-old demographic, and I can tell you that I introduced my 7-year-old daughter to it this week and she was quite happy and engaged.

CEO Alkalay is coming off a 12-year stint as a content pro at Nickelodeon, and made the move to start batteryPOP after coming to the undeniable conclusion that TV is losing young viewers to the web, but a truly kid-safe video platform was lacking. In Alkalay’s words, the challenge was to “Only put up kid-friendly content.”

The site’s video content is 100% sourced from professional child video creators, and includes cartoons, kids’ music videos, blogs for kids, and kid-friendly video game walkthroughs. Before content is selected, it is reviewed start to finish by the battryPOP team before being posted to the site. The problems of kids, either mistakenly or on purpose watching adult content is solved from the get go.

In terms of privacy and protecting kids from cyberbullying and the like, BatteryPOP’s child safety features are among the best that we’ve seen:

  • No real names or profile pictures are used – each child picks a screen name, which is a combination of an adjective and a noun, and an avatar
  • The child’s email address and birth date are not collected
  • Kids can upvote or share videos, but cannot comment on them as a defense against cyberbullying
  • Users can follow other users and become “friends”, but they can’t message each other

According to Alkalay’s partner Taso Mastorakis, “batteryPOP is an online entertainment destination everyone in the family can feel good about.” It does a good job of that in our opinion.


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A Test of Instagram’s Policy for Deleting Minors’ Accounts

We aren’t going to stop writing about Instagram leaving parents powerless deleting their child’s account until something changes. Here we go again.

instagram-sq-logoThe backstory:

Instagram’s age limit is 13, but it is not enforced in any way. If a parent finds out that a child (under 13) has joined Instagram, she should be able to contact Instagram to have the account deleted. In practice, she can’t, except for in a narrow set of circumstances. Several parents in the last few months have contacted us asking for help deleting their child’s Instagram account. Help doesn’t exist.

Instagram claims that they’re helpless in cases such as these. According to their Tips for Parents section under “How do I report an underage child”:

“Generally, privacy laws don’t allow us to give unauthorized access to someone who isn’t an account holder. All people on Instagram ages 13 and older are considered authorized account holders and are included in the scope of this policy.”

We have been discussing this issue with a friend of ours, Greg at coppaNOW. COPPA is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and Greg is a go-to resource for us in this area. We decided to do a test to see whether we could determine a set of circumstances in which Instagram would delete the account of a child under 13.

One of my kids is 15, and I started off by finding a few old pictures of him. I then created an Instagram account in his name, and listed his age as 11 in his profile. I also posted the picture at right, inviting anyone who cared to his 11th birthday party. We let a couple of days go by, and then Greg reported the account to Instagram.

Guess what? Instagram deleted the account within 8 hours.

Greg, who reported him, was obviously not his parent. It appears, as we suspected, that Instagram will only delete an underage user’s account if there is clear proof in the account itself that the user is under 13. We have helped parents report plenty of other accounts, to no avail. Some even mailed in a copy of the child’s birth certificate. It appears that only if Instagram is at risk of being sued for violating COPPA will they act; not simply because a parent wants them to.

delete-instagramSince Instagram uses no age verification system, it goes without saying that a parent is more capable of vetting a child’s age than Instagram is. Plus, it’s their child. Clearly, they have the ability delete underage accounts in a timely fashion – they did so in this case. We are calling for them to add the staff and resources necessary to implement a way to give parents the control that they should rightly have. This needs to change.

Read more about this:

Parents are Powerless as Instagram Will Not Delete Underage Accounts

How to Contact Instagram – It’s Difficult, Even for Parents of Minors


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