As a parent, you might walk past your child’s room and see her happily typing away on a Google Docs page. “Lovely!” you think. “She’s probably working on her science report or finishing up her essay on the Whitlam dismissal.”
Or, she could be in a secret chat room.
In today’s edition of Let’s Try to Stay One Step Ahead of Our Kids on the Internet (spoiler: We can’t!), we’re offering this heads-up: Some are using Google Docs, the seemingly wholesome web-based word processor, to skirt their parents’ tech rules.
It’s impressive, really. All they need to do is open up a document, invite their friends to become collaborators, and boom — they have a private space to chat, draw, share links, upload photos and post memes.
Google Docs is hardly a program parents think to block (in fact, on tech message boards, I’ve seen several parents asking how to ban everything except for the software) and many kids already have accounts for school. After the chat session, they can simply delete the document and empty their Trash folder without leaving any record.
what the media thinks teens like: sexting
what teens actually like: google docs
— dylan (@dylwack) March 18, 2018
A group of teens I do not know have accidentally invited me to their google doc, where they are ranking their best friends. pic.twitter.com/Gt6LKAmBPq
— Kate Millard Evarts (@kate_evarts) February 22, 2017
On Reddit, one user shared how their sister’s friend was grounded and had her phone taken away, so her group of high school juniors simply moved their conversation to Google Docs.
Author Ijeoma Oluo tweeted that her son used the workaround to get past his mother’s restrictions, something she found to be “adorably nerdy”.
My 10 year old created a shared Google doc to chat with his friends and it's the most adorably nerdy solution to "my mom won't let me have a social media account" that I've seen in a while
— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) March 13, 2018
In response to Oluo’s tweet, many parents shared that their kids have done the same. One explained that friends “have designated colours to make it easier to tell who is talking”. Another wrote that her daughter spends 90 per cent of her time Google Docs “sharing unicorn gifs”.
While that all sounds pretty innocuous (my high school self would’ve loved something like this), the team behind parental control app Bark warns that children are also using the word processor for bullying — in fact, they say they’ve “seen more than 60,000 cases of kids ganging up on other children in Google Docs”. (The service uses AI technology to look for activity that may indicate cyberbullying, as well as online predators, drug use and suicidal thoughts.)
“They work in tandem to write mean or hurtful things in a shared Google Doc,” the company’s blog states. “In other cases, kids create private, digital ‘burn books’ and invite others to contribute while leaving out the teased child.”
For parents, it’s complicated. Kids always will find a way to connect — maybe you simply see this as the modern-day version of passing around a secret notebook in the school halls, the probably-not-latest example of teenage ingenuity.
Years ago, the story was told about how editor Mitch Wagner discovered “some young girls holding a gossipy chat in the comments section of an old blog post of his” — because their school had blocked social media, they would pick random blog posts and use them as discussion boards.
You can try to keep close digital tabs on your kids, but doing so might just make them hate you.
The best thing you can do is teach your kids how to stay safe themselves — to think twice before posting something they might later regret (just because a Google document is destroyed doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have a screenshot), to tell an adult if they suspect cyberbullying or harassment, and to not accept invitations from anyone they don’t know.
Also, you might want to limit their tech use to a communal family area. You’ll have a better idea of whether your kids are doing homework, sharing unicorn gifs or doing something worse.