Smartphone trends to watch as kids head back to school

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Learn about the latest trends in Fall 2021

Good morning, underslept and over-caffeinated parents! It’s back to school time, which means the kids are headed back to the classroom. Oh, and they’re bringing their smartphones with them! What better place to get with friends and try the latest social media challenge, or Instagram camera trick, than at school?  

You might be wondering what kids are up to on their smartphones these days. The answer is: everything. So we put together some trends to give you an idea of how your kids might be using their phones to interact, communicate, and—unfortunately—make trouble at school. 

1. It’s all about Instagram, TikTok and YouTube

For kids, there are social media platforms, and then there are the go-to apps: Instagram (aka “IG”), TikTok and YouTube. You’ll probably find kids use the first two to share short videos and other multimedia content with friends, family and followers. Yet, both IG and TikTok have evolved to include countless ways to share content and be creative. 

In terms of YouTube, you’re more likely to find your kids sharing videos of their favorite YouTube stars with friends, or watching and imitating a viral video. Still, YouTube allows for the posting of videos, including live streams, too. And the comments section is notorious for its “Wild West” dynamic and rampant toxicity.

A few things to keep in mind about today’s top social media platforms:

  • Most kids use social media on mobile so they can take photos and videos and post to social all at once.
  • Everything is a story or reel. Ever see kids walking down the street gesticulating into their iPhones? They’re probably creating “Stories,” “Reels,” or “TikToks”—short, consumable content to share with followers. 
  • They’re not just for posting content. Kids use these platforms to communicate, form relationships and even bully. Most of these platforms have messaging capabilities, too. 
  • Everyone can see public accounts. You can set accounts to be private, which limits who can see posted content to approved connections. Public content, however, can appear in a LOT of different places—on and off the app.
  • The comments section is a zoo. It can be fun and positive, sure. It can also be the home of toxic and demeaning bullying that can impact a child’s self-esteem.
  • Age filters can easily be evaded and all of these platforms host at least some content that’s inappropriate for children.

2. What you don’t know about DMs

If you’ve heard the phrase “sliding into your DMs” before, you know that “DMs” is short for direct messages. Most of the mobile apps that kids use to interact at school, including social media platforms, have DM functionality. Depending on the platform and the account’s security settings, some people can receive unsolicited DMs to their inboxes from strangers. 

Here’s why that’s a problem for kids going back to school. First and foremost, if you’re monitoring a child’s public social media use from another device, you can’t see their DMs—those are private to the logged-in user. This can create a kind of shadow text messaging function that kids can use to communicate privately, with no oversight. 

Secondly, DMs can be dangerous. For instance, Instagram had to introduce new measures to stop teenagers from receiving DMs from random people. It’s a common entry point for predators, in fact. The subtext here is that teens can communicate with strangers via DM, often without parents knowing. This is a real security issue on a platform that most parents think is only for sharing photos.

3. Do you Fortnite?

Picture this: you’re at a hockey game and they’re showing people dancing on screen. Your kid stands up and starts doing a strange dance with their arms and hips—the “Floss emote from Fortnite,” they later inform you. Fortnite is one of many popular games that kids play on their smartphones. Others include Minecraft, Animal Crossing and Pokemon Go.

The first thing parents typically worry about with smartphone gaming is usage. They worry that their kids spend too much time playing. Given the addictive, gamified nature of these games, that’s a very real concern. However, as your kids head back to school with these games in their pockets, here’s a few other things to keep in mind: 

  • Kids build social groups around the games they play online
  • Many games are played as a group with built-in interactivity (microphone, chat, etc.)
  • Many trends and memes originate in the gaming world
  • Most apps now include in-app purchases that can quickly add up
  • Most schools prohibit kids from playing unauthorized games at school

Finally, be realistic and don’t go it alone

There was a time when kids walked around with chain wallets and loose change in their pockets. Now they carry internet-enabled super computers. That’s a lot of power for a kid to take with them to school. They can quickly snap photos, record video, and share anything and everything around them.

It happens fast.

Indeed, smartphone usage is now a norm among kids and teens that needs to be managed, rather than an exception to be avoided. The ways in which kids use those phones, both for better and worse,  evolve faster than parents can keep up.  

That means the best defense is not only awareness, but communication with teachers and school staff. What are they seeing? What are their smartphone policies for kids? How are their policies working? 

In addition, parents can rely on mobile security technologies such as parental controls to monitor behaviors when they can’t be around in person.  You might not know everything that’s going on, but it’s a step in the right direction toward a safer school year.

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