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Can you recommend a messaging app that's safe for kids?

If your kids are curious about messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Kik Messenger, and Snapchat, you may be wondering whether to say "yes" or wait a bit. These apps are super popular with kids because they offer richer experiences than regular SMS texting. Kids can collect points to trade for stickers and emojis, stream additional news and content, play games, and even gain access to other chatting apps with different (not always age-appropriate) functionality. They also typically have built-in scan codes that let kids trade contact information and other data quickly. But these apps have tons of risky features, from location settings to chatting with strangers, that make them better suited for social-media-savvy teens rather than tweens.

And it's not just the safety issues that make messaging apps a risk for young users. Most apps are designed for kids over 13 because of the way they track users' data. The Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) forbids online companies from knowingly collecting data and using it for marketing purposes on users under 13. So when younger users fake their birth date to gain access to these apps, their data -- including things like location -- is being tracked as though they were older. New ways of tracking data are being invented all the time -- compounding the risks to young users. In addition to the standard display ads and in-app purchases, many companies are testing new marketing methods that meld advertising and content, such as Kik Messenger's "promoted chats" (in which brands text with users). So while many tweens and young teens want to get the latest cool app such as TikTok (and in fact, many do ignore the rules), they're not supposed to (and they can get kicked off the platform when their real age is discovered).

Though your tweens may be begging to "age up," it's really better to delay until they're old enough to handle the extra features. Try to steer them into one of the excellent programs designed for users under 13. And if you allow kids to use them, make sure you discuss responsible social media rules.

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