HOUSTON - While parents focus on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, children often turn to anonymous apps adults have never heard of to share and interact with each other without revealing who they are.
Experts say they're easily accessible and encourage kids to share way too much personal information.
"The days are gone, in which we can think that our kids are safe because they're in their bedrooms, and they're quiet, "says Social Media Intelligence expert, Steve Webb.
More teens are gravitating to apps like Whisper, Kik, and Discord, sharing their innermost thoughts, photos, and messages with people they've never met.
"One of the top five downloads is called NGL stands for 'not gonna lie,' it is an anonymous add-in, an anonymous app that allows all the followers from your Instagram to be able to message our children anonymously, "says Webb
When that happens, kids are exposed to a wide range of risk from exploitation to cyberbullying, leading to detrimental effects.
"We're looking at suicide rates for 15 to 17-year-olds has gone up 76% over the last 10 to 12 years," says Webb. "For 10 to 14-year-olds, it's tripled. that's not because of bullies at school. that's because of social media and the threat of cyber harassment and cyberbullying."
The dangers are real. In North Carolina, a young girl was kidnaped by a 38-year-old man after using Emerald Chat on her school-issued computer.
Yolo and L-M-K anonymous messaging apps are being sued by a mother of a teen who committed suicide as a result of constant cyberbullying.
"Anybody can access these social media, these anonymous apps, the scope of the audience is potentially millions," says Colton Easton with Safer Schools Together.
While anonymous apps are nothing new, they are gaining in popularity as people are spending more time on social media.
Those between the ages of 8-28 spend about 44 and a half hours each week in front of digital screens, according to the nonprofit Center for Parenting Education.
"They know that one photo or video that they sent has the potential to be screenshotted and shared amongst other individuals, " says Easton. "The unfortunate thing is when you know they are still engaging in some of these risky behaviors that they understand the risks, they still do it anyway."
Safer Schools Together works with the Texas School Safety Center to teach school districts how to identify current threats online and has seen almost 4 times the amount of bullying and cyberbullying cases since the start of the pandemic.
"The number one increase in an anonymous-based app is where we're seeing is the usage of discord, and it's really tough for districts to combat that because there's no really good way of searching," says Easton.
Experts say it all boils down to communication.
"Communicate with your teachers, communicate with your caretakers, all those who have your child's best interests at heart," says Webb. "Make sure you're all on the same page."
Webb warns parents to do their research to remove dangerous apps, especially secret calculators.
"If you've got three calculators as apps on those children's phones, they're not using three calculators more than likely two of those are cloaking apps where they put in a code and allows them to hide things like pictures and websites and different things that they're doing that they want to hide from you," says Webb. "Be aware that those are out there, and there's hundreds of them for children to choose from."
There are parental control apps like Net Nanny, Bark, and Norton. Each one monitors different things. You can track calls, and text messages and even see what your child’s screen looks like through remote browsing.