How to keep your kids safe while they video chat online

With social distancing and interacting online all the rage, we are all turning to video chat apps and conferencing tools to stay connected. 

But how secure are they – especially for our kids who are jumping on virtual playdates in place of the real thing?  While it’s important for everyone to remain connected with their friends and peer groups, you do need to keep an eye on the privacy and security of apps like Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp, Facetime and newcomers such as Houseparty. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of video chat apps, we are assuming that you are:

  • Actively involved with your child’s online activity
  • Educating them about the dangers
  • Monitoring what they are doing online   

Now let’s take a look at what video chat apps are out there, with tips on how to keep your kids safe when they log on. 

7 ways to stay safe with video apps

Follow these 7 steps to make sure your kids are safe while they are using video chat apps:

  1. Always download apps from an official app store or a trusted source – like the developers own website.
  2. Update to the latest software so your app has the latest security patches installed. 
  3. Educate yourself about the privacy and/or security settings on an app and adjust them before your kids use it.
  4. Never join a meeting or accept a request from someone you don’t actually know.
  5. Keep any personal details about you or your kids out of online profiles.
  6. Ask your kids to tell you if something happens during a video chat that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable.
  7. Only add people they/you know as contacts, and avoid accepting requests from people they don’t know.

Now let’s look at some of the most popular video chat apps out there, and how they rate.

Video chat apps: which is the safest for kids?

There are a ton of chat and video chat apps out there, and it isn’t possible to cover every single one – so here we have covered the most popular, and a couple that you may not have heard of. 

FaceTime

Image: Facebook

If your household is tied into the Apple ecosystem then using FaceTime makes a lot of sense as it is integrated into your contacts and messaging – which makes it incredibly easy to use. Use FaceTime from your Mac, iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to make video (and audio) calls – all you need is the person’s phone number or registered email address. It also has support for up to 32 people – so a virtual group playdate is possible with this app. In terms of adding your kids as users, you can create an iCloud id for them and manage their access via Family Sharing and fine tune access using Parental Controls. 

Privacy + Security: FaceTime audio/video calls are protected by end-to-end encryption, which means no one else (including Apple) can access them. FaceTime calls are not recorded or stored on Apple’s servers either. A bug was discovered in early 2019 which did allow hackers to listen in to a FaceTime conversation, but this was quickly fixed by Apple. 

Pros

  • Great integration on Apple devices
  • End-to-end encryption
  • Multiple users
  • Set Communication Limits in settings, including who your kids can call and when

Cons

  • Apple devices only

Kidsbook safety tip> Make sure you turn on the ‘Silence Unknown Callers’ feature in settings to prevent someone who isn’t in your contacts calling you.

Zoom

Image: Zoom Video Communications

No one outside the business community had heard of – never mind used, Zoom until recently. Thanks to the global lockdown all that has changed and everyone and their gran are using it, which has seen its user base rocket from 10 million to 200 million in a matter of months. Inviting someone to chat is as easy as sending them a link. 

How safe is it? 

The app got a ton of bad publicity thanks to a loophole that allows other users to ‘Zoombomb’ your session. Zoombombing is when another user – usually a troll – gatecrashes a video chat that is in progress, where they could leave inappropriate images or offensive comments. The weakness comes from the fact that Zoom meeting IDs are randomly generated, and it is possible to hack them. 

Privacy + Security:To their credit Zoom have woken up to the privacy risks and recently highlighted some tips on keeping uninvited guests out of your video chat. This includes restricting who can access your screen, only allowing signed users to join and locking a meeting to new participants and removing the Personal Meeting ID (PMI) from the screen. They have also introduced a security tab visible to hosts and co-hosts of a Zoom meeting, and meeting passwords are now on by default for free Basic accounts. Despite this the platform does not – at the time of writing – offer end-to-end encryption. 

Pros

  • Inviting multiple users is easy 
  • Works on any platform or device
  • Those backgrounds!

Cons

  • Calls are not end-to-end encrypted
  • Privacy policy is vague
  • Free version has time limit

Kidsbook safety tip> Set up two-factor authentication with a meeting ID and user password, and turn off file transfer and screen sharing options.

Houseparty

Image: Houseparty

Epic Games – the outfit behind hit game Fortnite – also own video chat app Houseparty. It has really taken off with kids, and it is easy to see why – you get to hang out in rooms with your friends and have a ‘party’, and surprise – there are also 4 games integrated into the app. Friends can be added from your contacts list or Facebook friends list, however if your location settings are activated, you can also add people nearby to you.   

Privacy + Security: Houseparty is relatively secure, but like Zoom, the app is ‘public’ in that other users can enter an unlocked room. The biggest risk is that your child starts a chat with someone they don’t know – but you do have the option of choosing who you chat with, and locking the room. You can also enable this in the settings, so every room is locked by default. There is however no end-to-end encryption which means the app is not as secure as some others on this list.

Pros

  • Rooms are a fun concept
  • Works on any platform
  • Support for up to eight people on mobile or desktop

Cons

  • No end-to-end encryption
  • Games can encourage kids to spend too much time on the app

Kidsbook safety tip> Make sure your child locks a chat room when they enter, or enable this by default. Also switch off the location-based location “Near Me” option.

WhatsApp

Image: WhatsApp

WhatsApp is a messaging app that a lot of us use for connecting with colleagues, family and friends. Besides simple text-based messaging it also lets you send images, voice notes and emojis, as well as voice and video calls. The big plus here is that it is simple to use and supports group chats of up to 4 people. This app is aimed squarely at casual users, so don’t expect any bells and whistles 

Privacy + Security: WhatsApp is secure in that it uses end-to-end encryption, and you have to be older than 13 to register an account. You also have to have a phone number to use the app. Once you are up and running you can only message someone who is already a contact, which limits the chance of any Zoombombing.

Pros

  • User friendly 
  • Great encryption
  • Works on any platform
  • Requires a phone number to use

Cons

  • Video not available on desktop
  • Max of 4 people on a video call 

Kidsbook safety tip> Change the default privacy setting for your profile to only be seen by ‘My contacts’ or ‘Nobody’

Skype

Image: Skype

Microsoft-owned Skype has been around longer than most other apps on this list. It has a ton of features besides private or group video and audio calls, including streaming live video, sharing screens, and a bunch of other options aimed at business users. 

Privacy + Security: Microsoft-owned Skype has a number of privacy and security measures in place, including an age limit of 13. Only people in the child’s contact list are able to chat or video call or share screens. The app also hides the age, date of birth and gender of children, and hides children from search results unless they are an exact match. If your younger kids use your account then they could receive a contact request from a stranger – so they need to know to reject this. If you create a child account under your Microsoft account then you can provide access to Skype via the parental permissions there.

Pros

  • User friendly 
  • End-to-end encryption
  • Works on any platform

Cons

  • Stranger danger on parent accounts

Kidsbook safety tip> Don’t include birth dates or any personal info in your username or public profile.

JusTalk Kids

Image: JusTalk

This is a spin off of the adult JusTalk app, and brings kid-friendly features like doodles, stickers, and games to video calls. The catch is it does cost, which you find out after you have downloaded the app. 

Privacy + Security:.In terms of privacy and security this app does seem to tick a lot of boxes. Chat and video are encrypted and you can also passcode protect the app as well as approve who can interact with your child in the app. A downside is that your child can use their details to login to your adult account.  

Pros

  • Ability to block other users 
  • End-to-end encrypted
  • No ads or in-app purchases 
  • No phone number required

Cons

  • Paid subscription required
  • Kids can use their account to log into the adult version of the app

Kidsbook safety tip> Passcode protect the app and approve any friend requests.

Want to learn more? There are a ton of resources to help you keep your children safe online, including at eSafety (AU), Internet Matters (UK) and Common Sense Media (USA).

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