By Lynette Owens

As many of us continue to stay at home due to the current pandemic, one thing is abundantly clear: Video communication is our present and our future. Humans are social creatures by nature. We thrive on conversations, shared experiences, and social connections. However, with the ongoing growth of COVID-19 across the globe, those opportunities have drastically changed. No matter how much we may love those in our household, we want and need to reach out and talk with others.

In our yearning for connection, we have turned to a technology that has been around for decades but never used at the scale it is now—messaging and video communication services. There is a plethora of video chat services available. Some of them are enjoying new-found popularity, such as Houseparty which added 50 million signups in the last month, and explosive growth, such as Zoom whose first-time installations grew by 728% from March 2 through April 10. Tech giants, like Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Verizon, are expanding their existing offerings or acquiring new ones to meet the global demands. Google recently opened up its Meet app to the public, which was previously limited to corporations and educational institutions.

Most video chat services have the same common features, however, some services have unique features, like the ability to play games with friends or collaborate with coworkers. All are free or offer a free version, are fairly easy to use, and are available on multiple operating systems and devices.

Despite this, they also open the doors to some risk, whether you’re video chatting as you work from home or your kids are virtually attending classes. The personal information you enter or devices you use to connect on video chats are always at some risk of being abused by cybercriminals. Underuse of privacy and security settings available may open your video chat up to uninvited guests. And like any app, there is always the risk of misuse and overuse.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to keep your business and family safe. Each video chat app has features and capabilities to protect your privacy and security, but here are six things you can do to help you and your family use them safely and successfully.

  1. Protect your privacy.  Review and use privacy settings, only invite people you know to a chat, require others to use a password to join (if available), and in some apps, set up a waiting room so you can approve attendees before joining the chat. Lock your chats to prevent outsiders from joining. Never share information during the chat that you really want kept private, as you never know who’s listening in someone else’s house. Use headphones to keep things private from your own family. These habits could help you minimize interruptions on screen, well, at least from strangers…we can never guarantee a rogue child or pet won’t drop in.
  2. Protect personal information. With consumer video chat apps, use a strong password like a sentence and change it often. If it’s an option, use two-factor authentication for added protection so if someone every got hold of your email address and password, they would still need another step to get into your account. Pick an app that has end-to-end (E2E) encryption to keep it more secure as not all apps have this protection for video chats. Many apps are improving their privacy and security features more frequently, so be sure to download updates more often. When leveraging business apps, use a unique meeting ID and password for each meeting. We also recommend disabling file sharing or the chat function, if you are hosting a video chat with large groups or for the public.  Finally, use reputable, up-to-date security software always on all devices.  This will protect you from malicious links or emails supposedly from the video chat app company that are in fact malicious.
  3. Protect yourself. Again, don’t allow people you don’t know to join your video chats. Encourage your kids to limit invitations or ask each other permission before adding lots of others to a video chat. Turn off location tracking within the app, if possible. Encourage your kids to come to you if a stranger is trying to invite them to a video chat. With so many kids home, strangers may be trying more online ways of coaxing kids to video chat, using techniques like catfishing to hide their real identities.  Report unwanted contact from strangers through the app, and call local law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THELOST.
  4. Report inappropriate behaviors. Speak with your kids about bullying, harassment, and other inappropriate behavior online that may upset them or make them uncomfortable. Encourage your kids to come to you if someone is being unkind to them or others on the chat. Show them how to report it (some apps have a reporting feature built in).
  5. Respect others and their privacy. Like face-to-face conversation, video communication is a two-way street. Kindness and compassion are always paramount, but especially now. We should all behave on video chats as we would in-person. Do not record or stream your chat and share them elsewhere, especially without others’ consent. It is no different than walking around with a recorder in your pocket while chatting with friends in a coffeeshop. It is a big violation of privacy. If others choose to hide their video image or use a background other than showing the inside of their home, respect their decision.
  6. Set time limits. Respect your own and other peoples’ time. In addition to remembering the other person has a life outside of your conversation, don’t forget the physical toll elongated screen time can have, including aches and pains (eyes, neck) that you may not think about until it’s too late. Remind yourself to look away from the screen every 30 minutes to a distance far away for 30 seconds to protect your eyes. Encourage yourself to get up and walk around after each chat—get the blood flowing again.

Check out a list of some of the most popular video chat services along with links on how to use them.

Video chat apps will continue to be one of the most important technologies in our lives. While they cannot replace face-to-face connections, they are a powerful substitute. If there is a silver lining from this pandemic, it is that our increased dependence on technology gives us the opportunity to master it.  Let’s take the time to learn how to use video chat apps wisely and teach our kids to do the same so we can continue be productive and stay connected to those we miss.

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens

Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro's ISKF

Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 20+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support digital literacy and citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association of Media Literacy Education and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day, and on the national advisor council of Media Literacy Now.

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.

Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.