GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Officials say kids are at a higher risk of being victims to sexual predators online than ever before. With new apps coming out almost daily, it can be hard to stay on top of them. There's a new app out there that's getting the approval of parents and even law enforcement.
Just a few weeks ago, Facebook rolled out a new app called Facebook Messenger Kids. So far, it's getting good reviews.
Kids are more connected now than ever on social media, but it can be difficult for parents to know who their kids are talking to.
"Kids are physically safer than ever before in terms of broken bones," said Chris McKenna, founder of Protect Young Eyes. "But I would argue that kids are being hurt in other more damaging ways, relationally, emotionally, just in terms of how the digital world is impacting them."
McKenna has dedicated his life to educating parents and their kids on internet safety and the dangers of social media. His website reviews dozens of apps and websites.
"We go through a description of the app, how it's used, what parents need to be aware of and then a bottom line that gives an assessment, usually comparing what the App Store says the appropriate age is for this app. But based on some of these attributes, some of these risk factors and here's what we think may be more appropriate," said McKenna.
McKenna is giving high marks to a new app on the market called Facebook Messenger Kids. Facebook's website calls it a free video calling and messaging app designed for kids to connect with close friends and family from their tablet or smart phone. The important thing is kids can only connect with parent-approved contacts.
"Facebook Messenger Kids was built for kids, it has that going for it," said McKenna. "Facebook Messenger Kids has parental controls. Parents are the only ones who can create the account because it has to be attached to an adult's Facebook account. Parents can decide which contacts are in the app. There isn't open access for me to go find you to be a Facebook Messenger Kids friend with you. A parent has to approve whoever I'm communicating with."
"With proper parental engagement, parents who monitor it properly, who monitor the friends, who read the conversations, there are a large number of safety features built into this application that make it much safer than others on the market," said Sgt. Joel Roon from the Kent County Sheriff's Department.
Sgt. Roon agrees with McKenna, saying so far, Facebook Messenger Kids passes their tests. Roon spent years as a child sex abuse investigator and was also part of a federal task force focusing on child exploitation.
"We love that there's no internal browser in the app," said Roon. "Some applications if you click on a link, the application itself will surf the internet to that link for you. It keeps them contained within the conversation, so if someone sends them a link to something that may be inappropriate, they simply can't get there."
With fun features like group messaging and video calls that include fun filters and stickers, it's something kids might actually use, but parents like it because they can control who their kids talk to, it keeps them contained in the app and conversations can't be erased.
"We finally have a digital environment that's actually pretty safe to let them kind of figure it out," said McKenna. "It's a test environment to see how they navigate social media without some of the baggage of some of the bigger social media platforms like Snapchat or Instagram."
Both agree it's not something to leave your kids alone with. Daily engagement with them about what they saw and who they talked to still needs to happen.
"Is it something parents should just leave their kids alone with once it's installed? No," said Roon. "This is daily engagement every single day. As a parent you need to be that safe place, you need to create an environment around internet use that makes you the safe place for your child to come."
"You have choices every single day," said McKenna. "We can't monitor every single click, but please understand like no other time in history, teenagers have the ability to significantly alter their life with one click."
Both Roon and McKenna have a message for parents who say their kids won't want to use the app because their parents are telling them to.
"We do think it's important for parents to step up and parent and set the ground rules," said Roon. "You get to be nosy as a parent, you get to control these things. You get to monitor the conversations with they're this young."
"I tell them to suck it up and be a parent," said McKenna. "There are no sissy parents in the digital age. If you want your kids to navigate technology in a certain way, set the rules and stick to them. Kids do not set the rules in the digital age. Too many parents my age are more concerned with being their kid's friends instead of being their parent. Be a parent."
Health experts are warning that Facebook Messenger Kids could damage healthy development, saying children aren't old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships. But for those who do want to all their kids access to social media, experts and law enforcement agree that Facebook Messenger Kids is safer than other applications on the market.