What Is Parler and Is It Safe for Kids?
The relatively new social media platform has been growing in popularity and giving parents pause—and now it's been taken offline. Here's what you need to know about the app, as well as safety measures to take STAT, according to experts.
Although it was founded in 2018, Parler, a social media network that has been likened to Twitter, has been attracting more buzz in the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and President Trump's subsequent ban from social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram "due to the risk of further incitement of violence."
On January 8, Parler downloads spiked by 355 percent from the day before—jumping from 40,000 to 182,000 first-time installs— according to estimates from Sensor Tower, which analyzes mobile app data. Parler quickly moved to number one in the app store, but has since gone offline completely after being removed from both Google Play and Apple app stores and being suspended from Amazon over violent content on the app.
"Recently, we've seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms," the Amazon Web Services trust and safety team said in a letter to Parler. And while Parler CEO John Matze called the decision an "attempt to completely remove free speech off the internet," without a clear plan to moderate content and comply with Amazon's terms of service, the app will be offline for now.
While parents are becoming increasingly concerned with the platform following recent news, their worries are nothing new—and not unwarranted. Late last month, ParentsTogether, a family-focused nonprofit organization with more than 2.5 million members in the United States, issued an urgent warning that social media app is unsuitable for children. Why? Justin Ruben, co-founder of ParentsTogether, cited concerns in a press release that the app could potentially expose kids to exploitation, abuse, and recruitment for racist violence.
Here, we dive into what Parler is, how it's used, and how you can keep your child safe from the risks experts want all parents to know about.
What is Parler?
Parler, which takes its name from the French verb meaning "to talk," advertises itself as a "non-biased, free speech social media focused on protecting user’s rights." And while the platform doesn't label itself as far right wing-leaning, its membership skews in that direction.
How Does Parler Work?
It works like Twitter in that users post texts or images, which in turn, other users can comment on, vote in approval, or "echo," which is basically a retweet or repost. Instead of being offered suggestions on who to follow, the app requires that you seek out the voices you'd like to keep tabs on.
Guidelines for Using Parler
In general, Parler prides itself on being a relatively uncensored platform, in contrast to other social media platforms that have more stringent community guidelines that users must adhere to, explains Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer of parental-control app Bark and author of Parenting in a Tech World. "Because of this, pretty much anything goes," she says. "Think of it like a social media Wild West."
Parler’s community guidelines note prohibition of spam, terrorism, unsolicited ads, defamation, blackmail, bribery, and criminal behavior. The app has no specific rules against hate speech, although there are policies against "fighting words" or "threats of harm."
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The Risks for Kids Parents Need to Know, According to Experts
Here's what experts who have downloaded and used the app themselves want parents to know if Parler does become available again—and especially if they see it downloaded on their child's phone.
Kids don't need to verify their age to sign up.
The Apple Store was advertising Parler at 17+ while the Google Play store advertised Parler as suitable for kids ages 13+. Given those parameters, recent buzz around the app, and the fact that, due to the pandemic, kids' screen time is way up, teens might be increasingly intrigued to download it, says Jordan. "Out of boredom, they may download it to see what it's all about and poke around," she says. "Kids may have heard about it being an uncensored platform and be curious to see if they can view edgy, dramatic, or adult content."
That said, it's too easy for younger kids to find their way onto the platform, according to Jordan. "Parler’s terms of service require users to be at least 13 or have parental permission, but the tone and tenor of the app is inappropriate for even older kids, and the app doesn’t actually require you to put in your age or birth date to get an account," she notes.
It's easy to encounter dangerous and inappropriate content.
Despite the community guidelines, according to the experts we spoke with, posts on the app feature incitements of violence, calls for civil war, anti-Black hate, antisemitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and pornography. Once a user is on the app, they can quickly navigate to problematic posts and view disturbing content by using hashtags. "Within just a few seconds of creating an account, a user can access pornography with the hashtag #porn," says Jordan.
Posts allow for unmoderated discussions in the comments.
"There are also unmoderated discussions happening in the comments of high-traffic posts, which can include sexual content, profanity, hate speech, and violent language," says Jordan. "Simply put, this is not an app for kids, many of whom may not be mature enough to understand what’s happening or how to respond to inappropriate content."
She adds that in addition to post comments, teens could also easily fall into dangerous private interactions with other users via the app's direct message (DM) feature.
False information is popular on the platform and not always recognizable by children.
Another concern for parents with Parler is the abundance of false information that runs rampant on the platform, points out Josh Nelson, campaign director for ParentsTogether. "If someone signs up for Parler and starts using the app, they will very quickly be exposed to lies and disinformation about coronavirus, vaccines, the election, you name it," he notes.
While teens might see Parler as just another entertaining spot for sharing memes, a post's origin matters. "If young people start talking about issues they haven't previously been interested in, using language or rhetoric that is unfamiliar, then parents should ask where they heard about this or where they got the idea," says Dr. Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, an associate professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas and Director of Research of Youth Media Lab. "They might be participating in some dangerous spaces that are masquerading as 'safe spaces' for free speech, humor, or ideas, but are, in fact, spaces for radicalization."
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What Parents Can Do to Keep Kids Safe
The experts we spoke with suggest concerned parents take the following steps to protect kids and teens.
Physically restrict their access. It may not currently be available, but should that change parents should take preemptive steps to prevent them from downloading Parler initially or again. "Using Apple's Screen Time or Google's FamilyLink, you may be able to restrict access by requiring parental approval before downloading apps," says Jordan. And if you use Bark, it'll send you alerts when your child downloads new apps, as well as block access to them.
Talk to your kids about Parler. Jordan encourages parents to sit down and have an open, honest conversation about the platform with their teen. "It's important to talk to your children about what they may have heard about Parler and stress that it’s not a place for kids," she says. "Ask them how they’ve felt about seeing inappropriate content on other apps to get a feel for their experience."
Vickery also emphasizes the importance of identifying what kids are actually looking for, in order to help them find it safely. "Is it connections with friends or communities, is it the kinds of content they can create or share, is it because it's fun? Validating these motivations is important," she notes.
Minimize its intrigue. The fact of the matter is that taboo makes just about everything more attractive to teens. For that reason, Jordan says parents can discourage them from checking it out by explaining that it’s essentially just another Facebook—"or in their language 'the hot new app for Boomers,' which today’s kids shun in favor of trendier apps like TikTok and Snapchat."
Teach teens to recognize harm and value facts. Focusing on media literacy and helping young people identify hate speech, offensive "jokes," and radical or extreme ideas can help keep them safe, explains Vickery. She concludes that ultimately, they'll benefit from learning to value truth, seek out information that is accurate and beneficial to society, avoid lies and deception, and not participate in speech or behaviors that cause harm to other people.
The Bottom Line
"This is not a safe place for kids," says Nelson. He encourages parents to check every device their children have access to and ensure that they haven't installed Parler, concluding, "If they have, they should delete their account and remove the app from the device."