Whac-A-Mole: Keeping up with your kids’ apps and websites

Andrea TomkinsNo one ever told us that parenting was going to be easy. When I was about to become a mom I dutifully read books and websites that gave me a helpful heads up regarding whatever was coming down the line. I was pretty prepared for sleepless nights, teething, fevers, and projectile vomiting (ok one that one was a bit of a shock) but I was not quite as prepared for the teen years. I was a teenager once (A LONG, LONG TIME AGO), and so much of what I’ve been bringing to the table comes from my own personal experiences. I am relatively equipped to talk to my kids about homework anxiety, schoolyard bullies, and hormone-related changes, but I worry a little about whether I have a good drop on technology that fits into teenage life nowadays. When I was growing up there wasn’t much on TV and the telephone was the primary way I communicated with my friends. Seriously. CALL DISPLAY was a big deal.

Some parents can’t keep up with the technology, and I understand why. It can be completely overwhelming. There are so many websites/social networks/apps that we need to know about, and they are constantly changing. And there’s always something new. But the way I see it, we either bury our heads in the sand or make the effort to keep up with our kids. All we need to do is a bit of homework of our own.

I’ve already written about YouTube and Instagram, but today I wanted to share some information about four other popular sites and apps that are on my radar right now: Snapchat, Vine, Tumblr and ask.fm.


Snapchat is an app that allows users to send messages and photos to friends. The unique aspect of Snapchat is that the app automatically deletes the message a few seconds after it’s received (very Inspector Gadget, isn’t it?), which really plays into a teenage desire to capture and share a moment. Unfortunately it also gives users the illusion of safety and privacy. SURELY NOTHING CAN GO WRONG. Right? Wrong. Screenshots of any message can be easily captured and shared; and although the sender is notified when a screenshot is taken, this may be small comfort if it’s an embarrassing picture that’s shared with everyone at school and beyond. 

Snapchat works on smartphones and also on devices such as iPod touches, making it available to teens that don't have phones or data plans. And because it also works over Wi-Fi, sending messages doesn't deplete the family data plan like texting does.


Vine is an app that allows users to create six-second videos and share them with a social network. Instagram recently announced a video sharing capability as well, trumping Vine’s six seconds with a beefy 15. That being said, teens seem really big into Vine and are sharing videos like crazy. The risk with Vine is the same as any other social media application: if you take a look at vpeeker.com you’ll get a good idea of how people are using it. (Warning: Vpeeker.com is an unmoderated feed of newly-posted Vines in real time, so there may be a few surprises.) 


Tumblr exists at the intersection of blogs and social networking and seems to attract people with short attention spans. (I’m only half-kidding. And it goes without saying that this has incredible appeal for teens!)

“Share the things that you love” is the Tumblr tagline, which sums it up fairly well. Tumblr provides what is essentially a blogging platform for uploading, sharing and re-sharing. There are all kinds of Tumblr communities. For example, My Parents Were Awesome is a very popular Tumblr that has been making the rounds.  There are also Tumblrs of cats, food, and photography. It’s also used for more troubling  topics. For example, in anorexia communities Tumblr is used to share “pro-ana” “thinspriration” images and comments.  (This is why our family computer is in a high-traffic area.)


ask.fm is a website where users anonymously post questions and answers on other people’s profile pages. Members pick which questions they want to respond to, and their answers, which can include photos and video, are posted to their profiles as well as to a real-time feed of responses.

It’s incredibly popular with teens and tweens who see this as an adult-free space.  There are a few reasons why it raises some flags for me.

  • Users are expected to use their real names and locations – which are publicly posted.
  • Anyone – not just ask.fm members – can pose anonymous questions.
  • Questions and answers can become a problem when they:
    • Cause or extend drama between kids that is happening at school
    • Attract bullies who post hurtful or provocative questions/comments
    • Attract creeps who are looking for vulnerable young teens.

If your tween or teen is using ask.fm, you should have a chat about some of these issues and ways they can minimize risk. The most basic piece of advice is to remind them to think twice about what they post.

Other things to keep in mind:

  1. Only submit information that’s required when you sign up.
  2. Make sure that privacy settings are set to “do not allow anonymous questions” (however, this won’t prevent someone from creating a fake account and then harassing another person).
  3. Select “do not show my answers on stream.” This will make you less attractive to lurkers.
  4. Don’t share your password with friends. This is one of the most important rules for young Internet users! 
  5. Don’t respond to questions that make you uncomfortable, and use the BLOCK feature to prevent that person from contacting you again.
  6. Don’t be afraid to report offensive posts or comments.

Keeping up with all of these new technologiers can be a tough slog – but it’s manageable. The first step is keeping informed about the technologies your kids are using. The second is sitting down with them in a non-preachy kind of way and talking about how they are using these apps and sites. Ask them questions. How are you using this technology? What’s cool about it? What can go horribly wrong?

I think that’s all we can do. There will always be a new app or website to be used and abused. That’s why we have to teach our kids to T.H.I.N.K. before they post (which you can read more about here), no matter what website or app they are using. 

I love this quote from Anne Collier, where she compared the frustration of trying to keep up with the latest apps and websites to the game “Whac-A-Mole”, and offers this advice to parents:

“The larger issue is talking with children in our care about compassion and respect for self and others, beauty and body image, how to be a friend and choose our friends. Instead of banning devices or sites, wouldn’t it yield more to talk about what pro- and anti-social behavior looks and feels like on them? … Letting them know we have their backs and they’re loved and respected is huge.”  [via]

What do you think? Do you agree?