SHAWNEE, KS - For most teenagers, smart phones are a way of life. According to a 2013 Nielsen study, 70 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 own a smart phone. The number is even higher, 79 percent, for 18 to 24 year olds.
That has Detective John Stirling with the Shawnee Police Department concerned. Stirling investigates crimes involving technology. He also specializes in child sex crimes, which, he said, is now often committed using technology.
“There's a belief that anything online is anonymous,” said Stirling.
To do his job, Stirling needs to remain well-versed in the most popular apps teens use these days. He’s checked out Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. All great apps at face value, he said, but can be dangerous if not used appropriately.
“The kids might be completely legitimate, not intending anything bad to happen, but unknowingly, they can put themselves in a bad situation,” said Stirling.
Stirling said if they post a picture with a landmark, they can make themselves a target. If Location Services is on when they post a picture online, people can find them through apps like Localscope.
“It will start going out from my current position and find all the most recent pictures put up to Instagram or Twitter and you can actually map a route to the location where that picture was taken or uploaded from,” Stirling said.
Stirling said it’s important for parents to turn off Location Services or GPS coordinates for social media apps so your child doesn’t give away their location.
There are other apps out there that Stirling said are more concerning. The one he is seeing a lot right now is Kik.
It’s a free messaging app that is very popular with children, though parents don’t seem to know about it.
Stirling teaches tech safety courses to kids and their parents.
Stirling said he asks how many people have Kik at these courses.
“Literally, almost the entire room (of kids) raises their hands. But when we get to the parents of those children sitting in a room and we ask the parents, ‘How many of your kids have Kik installed on their phone?’ Two or three hands go up.”
The main concerns surrounding Kik are that strangers can send messages to your child and those messages can’t be blocked. Plus, Kik contains other apps within it which are not verified by iTunes or Google Play. In addition, some of the apps within Kik are designed for adults and may contain pornography. And a parent cannot “share” an account with their child on Kik.
Kik also launched a feature called Photo Bomb that’s similar to another dangerous app, Snap Chat, said Stirling.
“You can use your messaging on your phone,” Stirling said. “You're sending MMS or picture mail, just the same Snapchat. So when you add in the element of, now it's going away, you have to question why? What are you sending that you want to not be there in 10 seconds?”
Stirling said the first line of defense for a parent is to set up a password on their iTunes or Google Play account. It’s not automatic on Google Play, so visit “Settings” and choose to set a PIN. That way your child can’t download anything without your knowledge.
Second, Stirling said, is know your child’s passwords.
“I always recommend for safety sake to have those passwords, but not only have those passwords but know what accounts you kids have,” he said. “When they give you the password for one Instagram, you might want to make sure they don't have two.”
Finally, keep an eye on what your children download. If you hear about a dangerous app, look to see if your child has it on their device. Even if they delete the icon on their home screen, you can still see if it was installed on the device.
On Apple devices, Stirling said, go to the App Store. Anything that has been downloaded will contain a small cloud symbol next to it, even if it is no longer installed on the phone.
In the Google Play Store, visit “My Apps” and click “All.” Apps that were downloaded but not installed will be on the list with the word “Free” next to it, rather than "Installed."
Stirling said the most important thing for parents is to stay informed.
“There's a technology gap and kids are so much more advanced than even the most tech-savvy parent,” he said.
So it’s up to parents to know what their kids are up to when they’re logged into a tech device.