February 6th was Safer Internet Day. And that got me thinking, “What could I do —or what could any parent do right now to make their kid’s internet experience safer?” Then it came to me —use the 7-day rule!!

It can feel next to impossible to keep up with all the tricks and sneaky ways porn and predators have access to our kids through the internet. And with millions of apps available to children, how can parents be sure which are safe to use?

boy playing app after using the 7-day ruleMarilyn | Parents Aware

The solution is actually simpler than you think. It’s called the 7-day rule. In today’s post, I’ll go over all the details and illustrate why this is an essential step in protecting kids against online dangers. First, let me share how I discovered this amazing rule.

10-year-old upset by provocative ads in gaming app

A few months ago Kayley came to me with a question. Her 10-year-old daughter had been playing a fun gaming app on her iPod and stumbled across some inappropriate content.

Kayley explained that the app itself seemed innocent enough. The trouble was with the advertising. In particular ads for Choices, another gaming app, would pop up each time her daughter advanced levels in the game. These ads were becoming increasingly provocative.

Kayley was super impressed that her daughter came to her once she recognized the images in the ads were making her feel uncomfortable. The challenge for Kayley was what to do with that information. She worried that if she straight out forbid the game, her kids might be less inclined to come to her in the future with their concerns.

She asked me if I knew of any way to control what pops up in an app. Or, at the very least, how to know what apps are in fact safe for kids.

Getting answers from tech-expert associates

I was at a loss. Anyone who’s watched me navigate my smartphone knows that my strength is not technology so I promised Kayley I would ask around. Fortunately, Chris McKenna of Protect Young Eyes came to our rescue.

First, he explained that unfortunately nothing could be done at our end to make an app safer for kids. For instance, the advertising Kayley’s daughter found is part of what he calls the app ecosystem. And Chris is just as frustrated as we are that these ads put kids at risk:

“The ads for Choices are a perfect and very unfortunate example of how young people are being sexualized by technology. Although Choices doesn’t contain outright nudity, it is a series of very suggestive, comic-book-like stories. These are VERY popular with young people right now. It’s only rated 12+ in the app store, but is NOT AT ALL appropriate for 12-year-olds.”

Then Chris offered a solution for a safer internet experience. He advises parents to navigate any app for 7 days straight BEFORE giving their child access. “Go through the levels, see what they might see, then, decide if it’s something your child is ready for.” (Chris has more solutions about internet safety here.)

What keeps parents from test-driving their kids apps?

Put like that, it sounds so obvious! Why have I not done this regularly? And why don’t more parents test-drive their kids’ apps? There’s all sorts of rationale we could insert here. Let me highlight three I think most parents will relate to:

We assume because it looks like a kid’s app, it’s safe for kids

This is exactly what the porn industry is banking on —literally! Introducing kids to free porn means bigger revenues for them over a lifespan. For this reason, it’s incredibly common to find hidden links to porn in all sorts of apps designed with kid appeal. Just because it looks like Disney Princess or Lightening McQueen doesn’t mean we can afford to skip the 7-day rule.

Tip: Chris reminds parents to make sure the app store is turned off so that an accidental click on an ad doesn’t turn into an inappropriate download.

We don’t realize that most apps give kids full access to the internet

Hidden links aren’t the only concern with apps. Most apps provide hidden doors to the internet bypassing parental control set up on devices.

One of the first things I noticed when I was playing Clash of Clans this week was that the app gave me direct access to YouTube. Their news section provided links to YouTube videos related to the game. But of course, they’re all from independent creators so there’s no way to control the ratings or content available through this portal. Furthermore, there’s nothing to prohibit someone from doing a search of more mature content.

We’re busy and tend to go by word of mouth for what’s good for kids. (Guilty as charged!)

Really, this isn’t a bad place to start. By all means gather reviews and talk with other parents about what games their kids enjoy. Just don’t assume that your friends know any better than you if a game is safe.

Tip: Chris suggests parents look carefully at reviews in the app store before wasting time on nuisance apps. For example, if you notice complaints of ‘too much advertising’ this is a good indicator the app will attract questionable content.

Ultimately, you’re the only person who can decide what is appropriate for your kids. And to do that effectively, you have to play the game!

7-day rule. Ready. Set. Bring it on!!!

By now my kids are used to me announcing all sorts of crazy-fun stuff I’ll do for the Parents Aware cause (give up sugar, sponsor community events, blog endlessly…) But nothing has them more intrigued and excited than when I announced that I would be downloading gaming apps onto my phone and actually playing them!

It’s obvious my kids are not going to let me fail in this resolve. In fact, it’s almost bedtime and my youngest just popped his head into my room and asked if I’ve played my game yet today.

Time to turn off the computer, jump into my jammies and begin the attack on goblins and nearby villages.

Online predators and other red flags

Because my kids haven’t been begging for any new apps recently I decided the best place to start was to test-drive an app they already use. The more I’ve learned about online child predators, the more wary I’ve become of chat features within apps.

My kids know this. We talk about it. They assure me they only communicate with immediate friends. But I need to see for myself what that actually looks like. Because let’s be honest, kids are extremely trusting creatures. And predators know how to manipulate that trust. My concern is kids may think they’re safe when in actuality they are  being lured into great danger.

It’s like reading bedtime stories and building Lego sets

Since gaming apps are such unfamiliar territory for me, I’ve asked my kids to show me the ropes. I’ve chosen Clash of Clans to start. It’s a strategy game, free to play with no advertisements. The game generates revenue through optional upgrades.

Playing with my boys has actually been an amazing experience. Their enthusiasm for the game is quite contagious. And though it’s really weird for me to admit this, I kind of feel like our evening romps through this fantasy world are akin to reading bedtime stories while simultaneously playing with Lego bricks. How can I argue against that?

What’s next witth the 7-day rule?

So far, I’ve played Clash of Clans enough to have my village raided numerous times, twice at a great loss (Crying over here!!). For the first time ever I can appreciate why this game is so appealing to my kids. But before I give it my total mom approval I’ll need to advance far enough that I can join a Clan.  At that point I’ll be able to test out the chat features. I’m a little slow, so I may need to take an extension on the 7-day rule. After that, I’ll download a new app and be off to my next adventure!

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Marilyn Evans lives east of Toronto with her husband and five sons. Concerned with the ease of access to online pornography, she began searching for ways to address this subject with her own children. The lack of support and information available to parents at that time compelled her to begin speaking out publicly on the subject. It's her hope that parentsaware.info will provide families with a resource they can turn to for answers on how to speak openly and honestly with their children. You can follow @parentsaware on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.