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Watching out: Do you know what apps your children are using?

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In the ever-expanding online world, kids have more and more tools to connect with the outside world.

As smartphones and iPads have become more common, often children can live entire cyber lives that their parents know nothing about.

From photo and video applications such as Instagram and Vine to interactive sites such as Ask.fm, the potential exists to share, connect and interact with friends and strangers alike.

Social media apps can serve as useful tools for learning, connecting with others or mindless entertainment. But they also can open young people, particularly teens, to dangers such as Internet predators and bullying.

“We like to say all of the technology is wonderful, but there are things that people need to be aware of,” said Laurie

Nathan, a deputy director with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“Even as an adult, you have to think about what you’re downloading and what you might be giving up in terms of privacy.”

The online world is almost ubiquitous for young people today, according to the Pew Research Center. Research has found that 95 percent of children ages 12 to 17 are on the Internet.

Smartphones have gained an increased foothold in their online activity. Last year, more than one-third of teens owned one, according to the Pew report.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that monitors and rates all types of media, has found that, while Facebook was the app of choice for teens to connect in the past, young people have moved on to new types of social networking apps.

Programs such as Instagram, Vine and Ask.fm are attracting thousands of new users every day, many of them teens and young people, according to Ingrid Simone, the senior editor of apps with Common Sense Media.

The diverse options for online contact and the fact that so many teens are obtaining smartphones have made it easier for teens to get online than ever before, said Walt Mueller, president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.

“It used to be, when the Internet first came on the scene, the concerns were predators, bullying and pornography. But there used to be one computer in the home,” he said. “With smartphones, they have access to everything all the time.”

The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding is a nonprofit organization aiming to bridge the gap between adults and young people in matters of youth culture.

With the explosion of online activity, the Internet has become a focus of its mission, Mueller said.

“They call it the ‘digital frontier.’ No one knows what’s out there, and these things just kind of pop up,” he said.

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 42 percent of kids in Grades 7-9 communicated with someone they didn’t know online in the past year.

The organization also found that 33 percent of children have received unwanted sexual material on the Internet, and 14 percent of youth have received unwanted sexual solicitations online.

The center operates a technology information program called NetSmartz to help educate parents, guardians and children about the potential dangers lurking on the Internet.

The increase in the number of teens with smartphones has only added another dimension to Internet safety. Smartphones with the ability to text has allowed for more cyberbullying, making text and email easier, Nathan said.

Certain programs give up-to-the-minute status updates of where kids might be and what they’re doing.

Plus, the fact that the tech world seems to be advancing at an exponential pace can make approaching the subject intimidating, Nathan said.

“Parents sometimes assume that the child knows more about technology than they do. We often see parents who are timid about parenting the child when it comes to smartphones and other types of technology,” she said.

Protecting your child can start even before you buy them a phone, Nathan said.

“Parents need to be aware of the smartphone they’re buying their

children,” she said. “They need to know what that phone is capable of. Is it Internet compatible? Does it have capabilities that you might not be aware of?”

Establishing rules and setting guidelines also are vital before giving a phone to children, Nathan said. Parents should make it clear that their kids need to come to them for permission before downloading any app.

That’s not going to be as feasible with older teens, but then parents need to follow up by checking the phone every week and examining what’s on it.

Some parents whom NetSmartz has worked with mandate that their children’s phones have to be turned over to them every night. That way, they can be monitored daily, Nathan said.

Most apps that are available for smartphones and tablets have redeeming qualities, Nathan said. They help make life easier and can be useful tools in modern life.

But the possibility exists that others can exploit them. Some apps result in a lack of privacy or open the door to unwanted contact, Nathan said.

“It’s important for parents to be aware of what their kids might be turning over,” she said.

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