The risks of crowdsourcing kids’ screen decisions

Months ago, my daughter — age 9 at the time — came to my wife and me with a plea to download the app Musical.ly, which was all the rage among her classmates.

It basically enables you to share your own music videos to popular songs. She reassured me that we could limit the people she shared with to “just friends.” And as she described it, the app sounded creative and fun to her, and safe to me.

Besides, she added, “everyone else has it.”

It’s not the most convincing childhood argument, but it’s one that is effective too often in this age of screen-time saturation and parental crowdsourced decision-making.

But I wasn’t buying it, literally. I told her I’d have to research the app and started with the website Common Sense Media. I’ve been relying on the nonprofit’s reviews of screen media since we started showing our daughter movies at the age of 4. (Full disclosure: I now serve on the advisory board of Common Sense News, and CNN occasionally runs Common Sense content.)

The site gave Musical.ly an age rating of “16+,” pointing out that it is essentially a social network, and “some families have encountered explicit sexual material despite the available settings and controls in the app.”

Normally, that would be enough for me say no to my daughter, but she had already argued that the site was wrong if it said 9 years old was too young. She’d been on Musical.ly on her friends’ phones and seen nothing that made her uncomfortable. I trust her judgment, so I sought out more information. I read other internet commentary, signed up for the app myself and stayed up after she went to bed to try it out.

Within minutes, I saw sexual images in profiles, in homemade videos and in comments that all made the site feel a lot more mature than my daughter.

Feeling defensive that I was about to give a parenting “no” in the face of what seemed like so much “yes,” I went on Facebook and explained myself.

Here is why I said ‘no’ on this new popular thing everyone my daughter’s age seems to be doing, I wrote, giving three reasons: I found sexual content in user profiles and videos, without trying very hard. There was easy, direct exposure to strangers. Adult strangers. And I found no way to filter out those first two items, even with privacy settings on. The privacy settings seemed to only reduce other risks.

In fairness to Musical.ly, the app’s terms and conditions say as much. Signup requires users to be age 13 and older, but user age is self-reported and something parents can restrict only for app downloads at the device level.

A little more digging revealed that the basis for that seemingly arbitrary age cutoff (a common one for websites and apps) is a 1998 law titled the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act that details the responsibilities of developers to protect online privacy and safety of kids under age 13. Website operators reduce their legal culpability by putting that age cutoff in their terms and conditions.

I reached out to Musical.ly to ask them what measures they are taking to address the inappropriate content I saw, and they pointed me to their parent Q&A page, which explains that choosing a private account means the only people who can message you are those from whom you accept a follow request. And as for explicit profile pictures in those follow requests, or in the public videos or in the comments to videos, the parents page explains that they can all be reported for moderation and possible removal.

I already knew about these safety measures and felt they weren’t good enough for my daughter. I decided to heed Musical.ly’s advice and not allow my under-age-13 child to use the app.

She was upset when I gave her the verdict the next day over breakfast. She explained that the root of her sadness was being unable to contribute to lunchtime conversations about the app. My heart tore a bit when she added, through tears, “all I can do is just repeat the few things I know about it.” She simply wanted to fit in.

But I explained to her that an important part of my job as a parent is to do everything I can to keep her safe. And because she trusts that I’ve got her back in all things, my permission to use social media brings with it the assumption that it is a safe thing for her to do.

It’s my job to decide whether to open a door to a given experience or keep it closed for the time being. Musical.ly wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, time my wife and I will decide about doors. And we won’t always do so for her. Soon enough, she will be largely making these decisions for herself.

I know I can’t filter out all of the potentially harmful, confusing or age-inappropriate stuff that comes her way. (Nor can I fully outsource that filtering to software and search filters, as a recent New York Times story reminds us.) But I do have the opportunity now to be thoughtful about these decisions and show her how I make them and what I value. When it’s time for her to take over, she’ll at least have a model from which to start.

That is more important to her well-being over time than a couple of awkward school lunches.

It is hard to stay anywhere near abreast of the technology our kids are engaging with. If I read every Term & Condition I ever signed, I’d have time for little else. And there isn’t much generational and historic wisdom to rely on as we cross this frontier. So we need to rely on our own judgment. We need to be present to see what they’re up to.

And we can seek help from peers (and, thankfully, sites such as Common Sense Media) to sort it out. We will all have different ideas of what’s appropriate, but it’s the conversation and deliberation that’s important. And the flipside of social media is that it gives us a great forum with which to engage in it.

A couple of days after delivering the bad news on Musical.ly, I checked in with my daughter. Some of her friends’ parents had deleted the app from their phones. (Maybe after reading a certain Facebook post?) It was yesterday’s news. She asked about a different one, Animal Jam. A year earlier, I’d deemed the privacy controls insufficient, but the developer had improved the protections since, so I gave it the green light.

And until something else came along, she happily and securely animal jammed, knowing that I had her back.

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