From Pinterest to Fitbit, No App Is Truly Kid-Safe. Here’s What Families Can Do.

Children who are not looking at all may encounter pornographic or risky images online or receive messages from strangers. This happens in the most discreet places: the Fitbit activity tracking app, Google Docs,


and lately,


Search engine.

Parents are very frustrated when trying to deal with what their children see online. Just when you think you have all the parental controls and web filters in place, your child receives a friend request from a stranger or finds pictures of women in their underwear looking for cookie recipes.

Last weekend, the online child protection and surveillance service Bark warned parents that due to some sort of bug in Facebook’s search engine, typing a letter into the search bar and then selecting video results resulted in a long menu of sexually explicit videos. We are investigating reports of inappropriate content appearing in certain searches, a Facebook spokesperson told me. We are making changes and have deactivated portions of the survey as a precaution until we complete our investigation. We apologize for the error.



The 12-year-old girl received an email request from a stranger whose profile picture was partially naked. A mother in Alabama removed her daughter’s email address from the application.

A Fitbit spokesperson said the company’s Fitbit Ace 2 is designed for children ages 6 and up and is built with safety in mind; all friend requests are sent to the parent account for approval. Even models designed for users 13 and older, like Gillstraps daughter’s Fitbit Alta, have ways to report inappropriate content and adjust settings to keep certain information private. A spokesman said Fitbit has control over the back-end to stop many spammers, but it can’t stop them all.

Although most social media platforms, including Pinterest, require users to be at least 13 years old, the reality is that many young people subscribe to them. A mother said her 12-year-old son searched for cookie recipes on Pinterest last fall and found pictures of half-naked women. Another said the same thing happened to her when she was looking for a recipe for meatloaf.

We work hard to detect and remove content that violates our rules, and we continue to invest in our people and technology to keep such content out of Pinterest’s reach, said a Pinterest spokesperson. If people find content that doesn’t belong on Pinterest, we encourage them to let us know.

People tend to think that there are safe social networks, but this is not true. And sometimes predators are children, he said.

Tracy Bennett,

clinical psychologist and author, in between: A guide for parents on online safety for children and young people.

Several internet safety experts have told me that high school and college students are using Google Docs to share nude photos of each other, often with the goal of intimidating their classmates.

Brian Thomas,

The CEO of Lightspeed Systems, a software company that filters Internet content for school districts, said they turned to Google Docs because many children’s social media accounts are controlled by parents and their emails by schools. He said his company has developed skin-color analysis software to help detect potential pornographic sites in school districts.

Dr. Bennett stated that she had a client whose child exchanged inappropriate messages on Google Docs with an adult associated with the school. It was a child’s academic account, so parents didn’t think to keep it up, she said.

A Google spokesperson said the company has a number of policies in place to maintain a positive experience with Google Classroom products, including policies that prohibit the publication of sexually explicit or pornographic images or videos. She also said that Google products have a mechanism to report any form of child endangerment.

What you can do.

Determine if your child is ready. Before you give your children a smartphone, social network or online gaming account, you should first check their level of preparedness. After all, it is more effective to help them deal with it than to try to protect them from all the evils of the Internet.

Diane Graber,

Author of Raising People in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology provides a checklist that can help parents determine when their children are ready to post to social media or play online. Parents can ask questions like: Can it manage its online reputation? or Can it protect its online privacy?

Once you’ve determined that your child is ready, some experts suggest creating a technology contract that outlines the rules for using the technology and the consequences for violating them. Mrs. Graber suggests one, as does Dr. Bennett.

A nonprofit that specializes in social media safety recently began offering a free online course on how to keep kids safe on social media.

Talk to your kids. Experts agree that the best defense is an ongoing and open discussion about how to stay safe. It sounds simple, but where do you start?

Experts recommend talking to young children about how they feel when something makes them uncomfortable, so they can recognize these feelings when they encounter something upsetting online. You could say it: Have you ever talked to someone and felt super weird about it, even though you didn’t know why? said Dr. Bennett.

For older children, she recommends weekly discussions on current topics. Parents who register on their website will receive weekly articles that can serve as a starting point for discussion. You don’t have to do it like a meeting. The idea is to form an open dialogue, she said. If the parents seem interested in the virtual world, the children will bring you information about their visits to the virtual world.

Use tools for online safety – and get your child involved. No parental controls are completely foolproof – or even childproof – but a little effort goes a long way. Most applications have built-in mechanisms to block and report bad agents and filter explicit content. You can set up device-specific parental controls with different levels of granularity depending on the platform. (For example, Chromebooks offer some useful controls, but you can’t set specific times when kids can use certain applications or services.) For even more control, you can block unwanted applications and content through your Wi-Fi router or with an optional network device like Circle.

According to experts, children are less likely to avoid parental supervision if you arrange it together and explain why. The parameters you choose will likely vary according to the age and maturity level of each child. For example, you can allow a 10-year-old to play online video games with people he or she doesn’t know in real life if he or she is old enough to block and report friends who don’t play well, but you can choose a stricter framework for a 7-year-old.

Moreover, learning how to use these tools can make children stronger for the future. By making blocking and reporting a habit, you help the platform remove inappropriate content and reinforce your child’s mental defenses against that material because he is actively using it, he said.

Mark Berkman,

Director General of the Organization for Security of Social Media.


What do you think are the most effective ways to protect children from harmful online content? Join the discussion below.

Teaching good digital citizenship. While no one wants their children to find inappropriate content on the Internet, it is equally important to teach them not to participate in the creation or distribution of such content. By discussing and establishing rules for not publishing, sharing or broadcasting things that may be harmful to others, they can feel part of the solution.

Everything kids share reflects their digital reputation, and you want to teach your kids to be as good at that as they are, Graber said.

For the latest news, tips and answers to your most pressing family technology questions, sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Email Julie Jargon at [email protected].

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