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Social Underground: Kids Using Google Docs as New Digital Hangout

Over the years kids have succeeded in staying one step ahead of parents on the digital front. Remember the golden days of social? Teens owned Facebook until every parent, auntie, and grandparent on the planet showed up. So, teens migrated to Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat hoping to carve out a private patch of land for their tribe. And, according to a report in The Atlantic, the latest app these digital nomads have claimed as a covert hangout surprisingly is Google Docs.

Yes — Google Docs — that boring looking online tool many of us parents use at work to collaborate on projects. Google Docs is perfect when you think about it. The app can be accessed on a tablet, laptop, or as a phone app. It allows multiple users to edit a document at the same time — kind of like an online party or the ultimate private group chat.

To interact, kids can use the chat function or even highlight words or phrases and use a comment bubble to chat. Because teachers use the application in the classroom, kids are using Google Docs to chat during class without getting busted or dupe parents at home into thinking they are doing their homework.

Another big perk: Schools have firewalls that block social networking sites during school hours, but Google Docs is officially cleared for school use.

The Risks

As with any app, what begins as a covert, harmlessly chat channel between friends, can get malicious quickly as more and more people are invited into a shared document to talk.

Kids can easily share videos, memes, and hurtful, joking, or inappropriate content within a Google Doc. They can gang up on other kids and bully others just as they do on any other social network. Similar to the way images disappear on Snapchat in 24 hours or on Instagram stories, the “resolve” button on Google Docs chat function, allows kids to instantly delete a chat thread if a teacher or parent heads their way or hovers too closely.

Because Google Docs live on the cloud, there’s no need to download or install a piece of software to use or access it. Any device connected to the Internet can access a Google Doc, which means kids can also use it as a digital diary without a digital trail and hide potentially harmful behaviors from parents.

10 Ways to Coach Your Kids Around Digital Safety 

  1. Know where they go. Just as you’d ask where your child where he or she is going offline, be aware of their digital destinations online. Check on them during homework hours to be sure they aren’t chatting away their learning time.
  2. Check for other apps. If you’ve grounded your child from his or her smartphone for any reason, and they claim they have online homework to do, check their laptops and tablets for chat apps like Kik, WhatsApp, hidden vault apps, and of course, as we now know, Google Docs (see right for the icon).
  3. Remember, it’s forever. Even if an image or video is “resolved” on Google Docs, deleted on Instagram or Twitter, or “vanishes” on Snapchat, the great equalizer is the screenshot. Anyone can take one, and anyone can use it to bully, extort, or shame another person anytime they decide. Remind kids of the responsibility they have with any content they share anywhere online — privacy does not exist.
  4. Sharing is caring. If your child is on Google Docs and you have a hunch, they aren’t doing homework, ask them to share their document with you so you can monitor their work. Just hit the big blue “share” button and insert your email address and you will have immediate access to the homework document.
  5. Keep in touch with teachers. If your child’s grades begin to slip, he or she could be distracted at school. Ask about what apps are used in the classroom and alert the teacher if you think your child might be distracted be it with technology or anything else.
  6. Parental controls. Hey, we’re busy because we’re parents. Enlist some help in monitoring your child’s online activity with parental control software. This will help you block risky sites, limit excessive app use, and give you a report of where your kids spend most of their time online.
  7. Look for red flags. Everyone needs and desires privacy even your teen. The tough part is discerning when a teen is being private or trying to hide risky behavior. A few red flags to look for include defensiveness when asked about an app or chat activity, turning off a device screen when you come around, and getting angry when you ask to see their screen. Another sign of unhealthy app use is an increase in data use and fatigue at school from lack of sleep.
  8. Connect with other parents. Here’s the snag in the whole plan: The rules that apply to homework and devices at your house, may not apply at other people’s homes where kids often study. Bullying or inappropriate online behaviors often take place under other people’s roofs. So get intentional. Keep in touch with other parents. Find common ground on digital values before letting kids go offsite for homework time.
  9. Talk, talk, talk. Your best defense in keeping your kids safe online — be it using apps or other sites — is a strong offense. Talk with your kids often about what they like to do online, what their friends do, and address digital issues immediately.
  10. Be flexible. Parental monitoring is going to look different in every family. Every child is different in maturity, and every parent-child relationship varies greatly. Find a monitoring solution that works for your family. Coming down too hard on your kids could drive them into deeper secrecy while taking a hands-off approach could put them in danger. Try different methods until you find one that fits your family.

Remember: You won’t be able to keep your finger on everything your child is up to online, but you can still have a considerable influence by staying in the know on digital trends and best online safety practices.

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