WATCH ABOVE: Tech reporter Nicole Bogart sits down with Robert Reichmann, CEO and founder of VISR.
TORONTO – Online privacy and parenting experts agree that encouraging open communication within your home is the best way to help kids stay safe online. The problem is, parents might not be aware of the wide array of issues their children are dealing with on social media.
“Kids today are dealing with a number of issues at a much earlier age than ever before, that they are often in able of facing – whether its bullying, drugs, sexting, or mental health issues,” said Robert Reichmann, CEO of online safety app VISR.
“On the flip side, parents are increasingly removed from what the issues are. VISR is designed to be able to connect users around those issues.”
The app, developed in Toronto, provides parents with insight into their kids’ online lives and encourages parents to have open communication within the home about responsible online behaviour.
“Parents don’t know what the issues are or when they are happening,” Reichmann told Global News. “It’s easy to say, have a conversation with your kids, but they don’t know what to have a conversation about or the appropriate time to have the conversation. This will give them the opportunity.”
It’s not a surveillance app – it’s an awareness app
So how does VISR work? First, you must download the app – which is available for iOS and Android devices – and add your children to the account. Once your children’s social streams are added to your account, you are able to customize which networks you would like to receive alerts about.
VISR currently supports Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and some email clients including Gmail.
VISR’s algorithms work to analyze your child’s social media activity. The software analyzes the language used in kids’ posts to determine potential red flags.
If your child posts something that the app flags as worrisome, you will receive an alert. VISR will flag content that includes explicit or sexual language, violent language, or content that could point toward mental health issues.
Reichmann added that mental health has been a big focus for the app lately. The algorithm is starting to screen more for terms related to suicide, cutting and eating disorders.
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The algorithm learns as you interact with its warnings. For example, if you receive an alert flagging suggestive language on your child’s post, you have the option to mark the alert as “Real Issue,” “False alarm,” or “I don’t care.”
If you do flag something as a real issue, the app suggests ways to speak to your child about it.
From there it’s in your hands – it’s up to the parent to use the app as a way to initiate a discussion with their child.
Reichmann said the app isn’t about surveillance – parents don’t actually see everything their kids are posting on Facebook or Instagram.
You won’t have access to your child’s account or password – and you only receive a notification about a post if VISR flags it.
“We’re trying to help kids become the best kid they can be – make the best decisions they can – and eventually be responsible enough to make their own decisions without parental involvement,” Reichmann said.
In fact, VISR even caters its advertising to kids and teens in an effort to deter accusations of it being a surveillance tool.
“Your activity is completely private. We only notify parents if we spot a potential problem. We don’t spy on you. We don’t know your password. We’re not installed on your phone,” reads the app’s website.
“We’re about you.”
But kids might not see it that way
Matthew Johnson, director of education at Canadian non-for-profit centre for digital and media literacy MediaSmarts, warned that teens may not see it the same way – hampering the positive affect the app could have on open communication between parent and child.
“The concern with any kind of surveillance tool is that it’s going to replace communication, because we know that’s really what’s most effective in keeping kids safe and encouraging them to make safe decisions online,” Johnson told Global News.
“It has to be a way of furthering those conversations and keeping it going – it’s important that kids understand what the implications are, why their parents are choosing to use it.”
Johnson believes the app may be more appropriate for those with younger children who are just getting started on social media.
READ MORE: How to teach your kids about online privacy
He also cautioned that kids may be able to fool the app using what he describes as “social steganography” – communicating in code by using emojis, or slang terms the apps algorithm might not pick up.
But Reichmann said the app is teaching both parents and kids important lessons about online safety.
Interestingly, he said the app shows that kids often have no ill intent when posting things that could be dangerous to them.
For example, one of the most common alerts VISR issues is when kids add geo tags – using their device’s GPS to add a location marker – to public posts.
“Kids had no reason to think, ‘Oh maybe some guy is going to be able to see this and know where I live,’” he said.
VISR recently partnered with Carol Todd, mother of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, who died by suicide after enduring years of bullying both at school and online.
Reichmann said Todd has been a big influence in VISR’s mission, providing feedback on the app.
“She’s very relatable as a parent,” said Reichmann. “The truth is we hate talking about the negatives that are out there and I don’t think it really resonates with people, but she really knows how to put it into a positive spin on how we can communicate with our kids.”
VISR recently partnered with a number of child safety organizations including the Amanda Todd Legacy Society and the Missing Children Society of Canada. The company will donate $5 for every new sign-up using the promo codes “Amanda” or “Missingchildren.”