What parents should know about messaging apps

WASHINGTON — The messaging app Kik was one of the messaging apps Nicole Lovell used before the 13-year-old was murdered, allegedly by a Virginia Tech student.

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Child and online safety advocates hope parents will learn more about one of the most popular ways young people communicate with friends, and more dangerously, with strangers.

“A messaging app is a tool on your child’s cellphone where they can send, freely, text messages, sometimes photos and videos, to other folks,” says JuRiese Colon, executive director of outreach with the Alexandria-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Unlike text — or SMS — messages, which are usually limited to 140 characters of text and are paid services, messaging apps are generally free, and enable users to share pictures and videos with friends.

“It can also include people they don’t know, because what messaging apps also allow you to do is be anonymous,” Colon says.

The anonymity is often used by adult predators who are seeking to communicate with children.

“With a text message I know your name. I know your phone number. I probably know you in person because somehow I got your cellphone number,” says Colon. “With a messaging app, on the other hand, I don’t know any of that information — I know your screen name.”

The digital exchange can be a gateway to inappropriate, or even criminal interaction.

“You’re getting a lot of racy information sent back and forth, a lot of sexual content,” says Colon. “A lot of images that should never be taken, let alone be sent.”

Colon says an adult would have no problem looking for potential victims with the messaging apps.

“It’s very easy — you can just look up interests, you can look up ages, or locations,” says Colon. “You can search those things.”

Colon says parents must be actively involved with their children’s online lives.

“That should really begin at the moment they hand over a cellphone or a tablet to their kids,” she says.

Parents should set boundaries about what children can look at, what kind of information is being shared, and with whom the child is allowed to communicate.

“It’s no longer a division between your online life and your real life — everything is blended,” says Colon.

“Just as a parent would want to know whose house you’re spending the night at, they also need to know who you’re speaking with online.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website offers tips for parents on helping keep children safe.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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