CNN Parenting

The risks of crowdsourcing kids' screen decisions

Story highlights

  • A 1998 law makes developers responsible to protect online privacy and safety of kids under 13
  • Policing appropriateness is a parent's job -- not the law's, not the parental control filter's

Go Ask Your Dad is parenting advice with a philosophical bent as one dad explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices. Share your insight at the CNN Parenting Facebook page.

(CNN)Months ago, my daughter -- age 9 at the time -- came to my wife and me with a plea to download the app Musical.ly, which was all the rage among her classmates.

It basically enables you to share your own music videos to popular songs. She reassured me that we could limit the people she shared with to "just friends." And as she described it, the app sounded creative and fun to her, and safe to me.
    Besides, she added, "everyone else has it."
    It's not the most convincing childhood argument, but it's one that is effective too often in this age of screen-time saturation and parental crowdsourced decision-making.

    Go Ask Your Dad is parenting advice with a philosophical bent as one dad explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices. It considers old problems in new ways, and new problems that previous generations didn't face.

    But I wasn't buying it, literally. I told her I'd have to research the app and started with the website Common Sense Media. I've been relying on the nonprofit's reviews of screen media since we started showing our daughter movies at the age of 4. (Full disclosure: I now serve on the advisory board of Common Sense News, and CNN occasionally runs Common Sense content.)
    The site gave Musical.ly an age rating of "16+," pointing out that it is essentially a social network, and "some families have encountered explicit sexual material despite the available settings and controls in the app."
    Normally, that would be enough for me say no to my daughter, but she had already argued that the site was wrong if it said 9 years old was too young. She'd been on Musical.ly on her friends' phones and seen nothing that made her uncomfortable. I trust her judgment, so I sought out more information. I read other internet commentary, signed up for the app myself and stayed up after she went to bed to try it out.
    Within minutes, I saw sexual images in profiles, in homemade videos and in comments that all made the site feel a lot more mature than my daughter.
    Feeling defensive that I was about to give a parenting "no" in the face of what seemed like so much "yes," I went on Facebook and explained myself.
    Here is why I said 'no' on this new popular thing everyone my daughter's age seems to be doing, I wrote, giving three reasons: I found sexual content in user profiles and videos, without trying very hard. There was easy, direct exposure to strangers. Adult strangers. And I found no way to filter out those first two items, even with privacy settings on. The privacy settings seemed to only reduce other risks.
    In fairness to Musical.ly, the app's terms and conditions say as much. Signup requires users to be age 13 and older, but user age is self-reported and something parents can restrict o