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Zoom: what is it – and is it safe for families?

As the COVID-19 outbreak confines most of us to our homes, video chats have become a crucial way to stay in touch with friends and family.

Services are experiencing record usage during lockdown. Facebook, for example, has seen group calls increase by over 1,000% in Italy over the last month. 

You’re probably familiar with Facebook and some of the other big names – like Skype, Facetime and Hangouts – but Zoom might’ve flown under your radar.

Because of the pandemic, the California-based company gained more active users by late February than it did during the entirety of 2019. So what is it – and is it safe for families?

 

What is it?

Zoom is a video chatting service which allows users to chat both one-on-one and in groups of up to 100. 

Although it’s been around since 2011, Zoom started out as a business-facing service which focused on webinars and group meetings. 

As demand grew, however, they widened their scope and developed into a popular platform for communicating privately. 

 

How does it work?

Signing up for Zoom is very easy. To get started, all you have to do is to give your name and email address, create a password and confirm your email.

If you’re using the mobile app, you’ll be asked if you want to enable fingerprint ID as well.

Then you can either join an existing meeting by putting in the Meeting ID, or create a meeting of your own and send the Meeting ID to the people you want to chat with.

Unlike similar services such as Houseparty, Zoom lets you connect to contacts through their email address or phone number rather than their social media account. 

When you join or create a meeting on mobile, you have to give Zoom access to your camera and microphone.

Once you’re in, you have most of the usual tools at your disposal. You can switch between voice and video chat as you please, share your screen with the other people in the room and send links and messages through the text chat box. It’s very straightforward to use and there aren’t many bells and whistles.

 

What are the downsides?

Although it’s free to get started on Zoom, you have to sign up for a paid subscription if you want to access all of the features.

For example, group chats with more than three people are terminated after 40 minutes in the free version (although Zoom removed a similar limit for Chinese users at the height of the pandemic). 

Considering the number of completely free services on offer, there isn’t much incentive for families to pay – unless they’re planning to host group chats with a large number of people.

 

Is it family-friendly?

It’s obvious from the user experience that Zoom was designed for more formal meetings. Most families won’t be interested in the service’s calendar integration settings or automatic ‘minutes’ transcriptions.

There are probably more suitable alternatives – but Zoom does boast an impressive user cap of 100 people which makes it ideal if you’re planning a virtual get-together with large groups or extended family.

Zoom also offers a more controlled experience than competitors like Houseparty where anyone can join in. To join a meeting, users have to be given the code by the organiser or participant. But equally, anyone in a meeting can access the shareable link and invite anyone they want.

The settings allow you to significantly tailor your experience – but there are no settings aimed at making Zoom more appropriate for children or families. If your child does use Zoom to stay connected to friends or other people in their school community during lockdown, it’s a good idea to check that they are aware of the risks involved in live video – and know what to do if they come across something that makes them uncomfortable. 

As with lots of chat services, remind them to be mindful of what they share and who they share it with – there’s no ‘undo’ button so once it’s out there, it’s out there. And if they see or hear something that they don’t like, reassure them that they can always talk to you about it.


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