A parents’ ultimate guide to Zoom

By Caroline Knorr

With a zippy name and cool features, Zoom has been the video-meeting software of choice for many businesses since it launched in 2013. Though its collaboration features were designed to connect remote office workers, they translate amazingly well to online learning. But the company has had to answer to significant privacy and security challenges revealed during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, when 90,000 schools in over 20 countries all started “zooming” practically overnight. Is Zoom’s simple setup, ability to accommodate 100 participants at once, and cost (free) too good to be true? If your kid is using Zoom, learn more about its key features and how to help them use it as safely as possible

What is Zoom?

Zoom is a video-chatting tool similar to Skype and Google Hangouts. Kids can use it to attend online classes, visit virtually with friends and relatives, and even join remote events like birthday parties. The basic, free version of Zoom offers lots of options, such as the ability to wordlessly signal to the teacher that you have a question, brainstorm on a virtual whiteboard, and collaborate on projects by annotating documents on other students’ screens.

How does Zoom work?

You can use almost any device, including a phone (so long as it has a camera) to download Zoom from the company’s Download Center, iTunes, or Google Play. Kids will get an email from the teacher with all the key info, plus an 11-digit meeting ID that you just click or tap to get into the class. Before a session, it’s always a good idea to open the Zoom software and test your webcam and microphone to make sure they’re working to avoid technical surprises once you’re live. You can also test your internet connection by joining a test meeting. (if your Wi-Fi connection is unstable, you can improve video performance by connecting directly to your ethernet). Get more tips on setting expectations and prepping for Zoom classes.

How is my kid’s teacher using Zoom?

Teachers are using Zoom differently, depending on their skills, their students’ needs, and direction from their districts. They may be teaching entire lessons via Zoom, or using the time to answer questions about work done outside of Zoom class time. Some teachers are scheduling regular “office hours,” which allow kids to drop in and chat informally, and show-and-tell days where students can show off their toys, pets, baby sisters, and the like.

Zoom offers lots of information for teachers, including:

Does my kid have to have a Zoom account to use it for class?

Typically, kids don’t need a Zoom account if they’re just joining a class scheduled by the teacher (only meeting hosts need an account). However, teachers can restrict the session to “authorized attendees,” which requires participants either to log in to Zoom or enter a password in order to join the class. Restricting participants is a handy safety and security measure that prevents uninvited guests from gaining access.

What can kids do in Zoom?

Besides just voice-chatting, Zoom gives kids plenty of tools to interact with each other and the teacher, work together, and even break off into smaller groups — just as if they were sitting with each other in a classroom. But if teachers don’t need these capabilities for class, or if they’re causing problems, they can all be turned off. Here’s just a sampling of what you can do if these features are enabled:

  • Share screen. This allows the entire class to view one person’s computer screen. Students can even annotate a document on another kid’s computer. Teachers can restrict this so only their screen can be shared.
  • This is a brainstorming tool that lets kids toss ideas around, such as for a group project.
  • Breakout rooms. The teacher can divide students up into smaller groups, and then bring the entire class back together.
  • Raise hand, clap, disagree, speed up, slow down. These are icons kids can use to: let the teacher know they have a question or comment, react to something, or ask the teacher to talk faster or slower.
  • Chat with the group. Kids can send a message to the entire class.
  • Private chat. Just like passing notes, kids can send direct, personal messages to other kids in the class. The teacher can’t view private chats between students.

What are Zoom virtual backgrounds?

Instead of your messy bedroom, you can make it look like you’re calling in from the set of “Inside Out,” “Tiger King”, or a world in Minecraft. That’s right: You can change your background to literally anything you wish, including video. (This feature doesn’t always work perfectly for everyone, as the growing collection of internet Zoom fails attests. Get step-by-step instructions on setting up virtual backgrounds.) Teachers can turn off this feature if it becomes distracting or students misuse it.

While virtual backgrounds are fun, there’s a legitimate reason some students would want to disguise their actual setting. One of the unintended consequences of virtual learning is it highlights socioeconomic differences by giving kids an intimate view of other kids’ living conditions.

What is Zoombombing?

Zoombombing is when someone hijacks a session by displaying inappropriate material using their video camera or share-screen function. The ease with which you can join a Zoom meeting has exposed some security weaknesses in the Zoom software, including the ability for trolls to “crash the party” with an ill-gotten meeting ID (they’re not hard to find). And in the unprecedented shift to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic, it didn’t take long for student pranksters to discover the loophole created by the ability to share anything on their screens (including porn) to disrupt classes. These and other privacy and security issues led to bans on Zoom for schools, including in New York City and Berkeley, California. Following these issues, Zoom released a series of privacy and security measures to address them.

What are the safest settings for Zoom meetings?

Zoom was originally intended to be used in business settings, where most folks try their best to act professionally. Kids, not so much. That’s why it’s really important for both teachers and students to know the best settings and features to use to boost learning and minimize disruption. Teachers can prevent Zoombombing, for example, by requiring participants to register for the meeting or use a password, and by disabling screen sharing. Here are a few key settings for keeping the peace in class.

  • Random meeting ID. Though you can use the same meeting ID for every class, Zoom recommends teachers use random meeting IDs (which is an option when they’re creating the invitation). It’s less convenient, but it’s more secure.
  • Participants can — and should — mute themselves when they’re not speaking. But the teacher can also mute students individually or all at once.
  • The teacher can control whether students can chat publicly and privately.
  • Disable video. As a participant, you can join the meeting with audio only and then turn on the video once you’re ready. Teachers can also disable an individual participant’s video.
  • Nonverbal feedback. These optional little icons let students raise their hands, give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and even let the teacher know they need a break, all without interrupting the class.
  • Lock the meeting. Remember when your stickler-for-punctuality algebra teacher used to lock the classroom door after the bell rang? Teachers can lock a Zoom meeting, so no one else can enter until the teacher personally approves them.
  • Waiting rooms. This is like a lobby or a velvet rope at a club: Participants are held in a virtual room, and the teacher admits them one by one to make sure no scofflaws gain access.
  • Turn off file transfer. Students can share memes, GIFs, and even quiz answers through the chat — unless the teacher disables this feature.

Should I be worried about Zoom’s privacy?

In addition to the security problems, Zoom has struggled with privacy issues. The company maintains it doesn’t sell user data and protects personal information collected from kids under 13. However, there are still privacy issue areas where Zoom falls short, including its limited, but still targeted, use of advertising and third-party tracking that may affect students in K–12. (Ads don’t appear on Zoom itself but on other sites kids visit after using it.) The safest way to protect kids’ data from being tracked and collected is for kids to use one account, such as their school email, just for Zoom. That’s because educational accounts are part of school subscriptions that come with stronger privacy protections.