Social Networking Apps and Your Kid's Safety


Social Networking Apps


Your Kid's Safety

by Kirsten & Lucy

My son is 13. He came out about 9 months ago to family and friends. Now, I’m glad to say that he is out at school too. He seems happy and well adjusted. Over the last week he’s been on his phone A LOT. After some questioning, he admitted that he’s been using the distinc tt app. We looked at the app together and I understand its intent, but I’m a little freaked. It’s hard for him to speak freely with peers even though they know he is out. What do you know about this app?
— Anonymous

Kirsten Says:

When we received your question, neither Lucy nor I had heard of the Distinc tt app….so we downloaded it to see what it was all about. I’m going to let Lucy delve in to her experiences with the app since she’s its intended audience, and I’m going to address your question in a broader way.

Like your son, Lucy came out when she was 13. Her coming out happened to coincide pretty closely with when she got her first smart phone. And like most teenagers, she immediately began spending TONS of time on her phone, sending and receiving literally thousands of messages a month. But what we realized pretty quickly was that in addition to staying in touch with her friends “in real life,” she was also connecting with other kids online – mostly via Instagram and Tumblr. And like you, I was puzzled. She had what appeared to be a great support system – I come from a big gay family, and we’ve all been accepting and supportive, and as she came out at school, everything seemed fine too. So why did she need to seek out connections online?

Here’s what I think. While Lucy’s experience as a gay kid has been pretty smooth sailing as far as I can tell, there just aren’t that many other gay kids in her every day life. So although her friends have been accepting and kind, not many of them truly get what it’s like to live life every day as “the gay kid.” But online, she had access to a seemingly unlimited number of kids who were having experiences similar to hers, and she could connect with other teens who really “got” her. The Internet has something for everybody – whether your interests are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the music of Tegan and Sara, gay girls, or all of the above. Lucy could find kindred spirits from all over the world, which I think helped her feel more connected to queer culture.

But don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it was scary. There was one girl Lucy connected with early on who was clearly having a hard time at home, and started engaging in self-harming behaviors. She was relying on Lucy for much more support than a 13-year-old kid living two time zones away could handle. It was hard for us as parents because we had no real way to intervene ourselves and get the girl the support she really needed. All we could do was help Lucy disconnect kindly.

It seems like you and your son have a good relationship since he was willing to share his online activity with you. And you’re right to be on alert when it comes to your child and the Internet. There are some great resources about Internet safety with tips for keeping your teen safe here and here:

But the thought I’d leave you with is not to feel hurt that he’s seeking connection in this way. Just keep providing love and support and letting him know that you’re open to the conversation.

Lucy Says:

Being the certified queer kid that I am, I decided to download the app, make a profile, and see what there was to see. I took the basic steps required to make a profile, which included checking off all of my interests and uploading a profile pic. Distinc tt then offered me a list of “Recommended Friends.” Astoundingly, while paging through the list, I found someone who is also in the drama program at my school! I also friended various other people, checked out their profiles, and sent a few messages to people I thought might be interesting to chat with.

Overall, the app is hard to navigate, and sort of difficult to use. But we are not here to talk about design flaws. All of the people I friended and messaged were under 18, and of all of their posts and messages, absolutely zero of them were sexual. While it did seem to be possible to be anonymous enough to disguise yourself as someone younger than one actually is, as long as your son knows the signs and can avoid false or suspicious profiles, the app seems safe. Overall, the app seems like an innocent effort to establish an easily accessible way for young queer people to communicate with one another and make friends and share interests.

Though the app is not something I had used before receiving this question, I can certainly understand its appeal. I came out when I was 13, and at that point, nobody at my school or in my close peer group was out. I turned to the Internet as a place to make friends that I had more in common with, and who I could share my experiences as a queer youth. While I did have a couple negative encounters regarding other’s reliance on me as a resource for help and advice (their issues were more than I could help with safely), largely, my experiences online have left me with lasting friendships with kindred spirits.

My advice would be to let your son make friends over the app, but check in with him relatively often to make sure he is being responsible and safe. While I’m sure he won’t be a huge fan of that kind of check-ups, I’m also sure that he'll understand that you're trying to keep him safe and happy. It seems to me that with the honest nature of your relationship, he will be willing to let you know if something unpleasant is going on with his online presence or “Internet friends.”

I’m Kirsten. I’ve been married to Richard for 20 years (!) and in addition to Lucy, we have 2 dogs and 4 ¾ cats (one of them only has 3 legs!). I work full-time at a non-profit social services agency. I’m basically addicted to Instagram and I love to read, bake, and make art. I’m dying to get a new tattoo. Suggestions? Find me on Instagram or Twitter @kjerstieb.

I’m Lucy, I’m 15, and I mostly like girls (with an occasional boy thrown into the crush cycle for good measure). You should talk to me! Instagram: @pizza_dog

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